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The Shape of Things A Philosophy of Design 
Vilem Flusser 


Published by Reaktion Books Ltd 

33 Great Sutton Street, London eciv odx, uk 
First published in English 1999 

English-language translation copyright © Reaktion Books 1999 
Reprinted 2009, 2010, 2012 

Copyright © Bollmann Verlag GmbH 1993 

The following essays were taken from Vom Stand der Dinge: ‘Vom Wort Design’, 
‘Form und Material’, ‘Der Krieg und der Stand der Dinge’, ‘Von Formen und 
Formeln’, ‘Der Blick des Designers’, ‘Die Fabrik’, ‘Der Hebekl schlagt zuriick’, 
‘Schirm und Zelt’, ‘Design: Hindernis zum Abraumen von Hindernissen?’, 
‘Warum eigentlich klappern die Schreibmaschinen?’, ‘Ethik im Industriedesign?’, 
‘Design als Theologie’, ‘Wittgensteins Architektur’, ‘Nackte Wande’, ‘Durchlochert 
wie ein Emmentaler’, ‘Schammanen und Maskentanzer’, ‘Das Unterseeboot’. 

Copyridght © Carl Hanser Verlag 1993 

The following essays were taken from Dinge und Undinge: ‘Das Unding 1’, 

‘Das Unding 2’, ‘Teppiche’, ‘Topfe’, ‘Radar’. 

Introduction copyright © Martin Pawley 1999 

All rights reserved 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or 
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, 
recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publishers. 

Translated by Anthony Mathews 

Designed by Ron Costley 
Photoset by D R Bungay Associates 
Cover design by Philip Lewis 

Printed in Great Britain by the MPG Books Group, Bodmin and King’s Lynn 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data: 

Flusser, Vilem, 1920-1991 

The shape of things : a philosophy of design 

1. Design - Philosophy 

I. Title 


ISBN 978 1 86189 055 9 


Introduction, Martin Pawley 7 

About the Word Design 17 

Form and Material 22 

War and the State of Things 30 

About Forms and Formulae 35 

The Designer’s Way of Seeing 39 

The Factory 43 

The Lever Strikes Back 51 

Shelters, Screens and Tents 55 

Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles 58 

Why Do Typewriters Go ‘Click’? 62 

The Ethics of Industrial Design? 66 

Design as Theology 70 

Wittgenstein’s Architecture 76 

Bare Walls 78 

With As Many Holes As a Swiss Cheese 81 

The Non-Thing 1 85 

The Non-Thing 2 90 

Carpets 95 

Pots 99 

Shamans and Dancers with Masks 104 
The Submarine 108 
Wheels 117 

Biographical Note 123 


Design is a process that has been variously defined over the 
years, a process over which many different interest groups have 
claimed hegemony where the design of spacecraft, aircraft, 
ships and weapons is concerned, it has always been accepted as 
a matter of specialist technical expertise. Where grand build¬ 
ings are under consideration, Art History rules, with Royal 
Commissions, government departments, local-authority offi¬ 
cers and celebrated architects sharing a duty of agreement 
based on value judgements. In the realm of the consumer, the 
task of design is constrained by polls, surveys and focus 
groups, with advertising reinforcing the result and the power 
of the manufacturer supreme. Where clothes, cars, fashion and 
furniture are in question, individual genius may appear to be 
welcome, but distinctions without differences will abound. 

For the media philosopher Vilem Flusser, none of the fore¬ 
going was of any importance. Flusser understood design in a 
different way, seeing it as a fit subject for etymological analysis. 
For this reason, the collection of his essays assembled here not 
only sheds new light on the importance of design, but also 
sheds light from an unusual angle. Flusser’s insights flow not 
from professional design experience, but from empirical 
observation. Not from the conventional art-historical critique 
of form-giving, but from a self-taught grounding in linguistic 
philosophy that enabled him to deconstruct the design agenda 
and then reconstruct it in another way. For Flusser, as the 
reader of these essays will discover, design began not with 
science, not with the appreciation of fabricated objects, not 
with the vision of their creators, not even with the fabled first 
doodle on the back of an envelope. Instead, it began with the 
meaning of the words and the ensuing discovery of identity. 

Just as evolution by natural selection proceeds in the 
natural world, design by semantic selection makes its discur- 


sive, apparently wasteful way in Flusser’s world towards the 
perfect reconciliation of needs with resources. Through infi¬ 
nite varieties of form and thought, from Galileo to the Gulf 
War, it follows in the footsteps of language, sifting and select¬ 
ing a profusion of alternative objects and viewpoints in the 
world made by humans. Much as the environment sifts and 
selects organisms for survival in the natural world, Flusser 
found meanings and drew them to the surface. Words and the 
languages in which they are packaged became the means 
whereby blind, evolutionary-niche-filling design proliferates 
and cross-fertilises unpredictable patterns of survival. 

Flusser’s world view provides a primer for the number¬ 
crunching reality of what might be called ‘real design’: a defini¬ 
tion that illuminates the vital but random and ‘uncreative’ 
roles of invention and technology-transfer even as it dimin¬ 
ishes the false claims made for individual genius as well as the 
distortions encouraged by national chauvinism. For example, 
in his question-marked essay‘The Ethics of Industrial 
Design?’, Flusser not only explains apparently arbitrary 
connections like the link between the cavity magnetron valve 
and the microwave oven, or that between the Polynesian 
wooden fishing canoe and the development of polymers and 
composites; or the relevance of bone china to the production 
of chocolate, of mathematics to computers, of computers to 
genealogy, and of genealogy to ecology - he also illuminates 
the crisis of moral responsibility that occurs because of these 
connections. He posits the state of ultimate irresponsibility 
that arises when the work of several anonymous designers 
combines to produce a ‘post-industrial helicopter-pilot 
complex’ of human-and-helmet that allows the pilot to aim 
and fire his guns simply by looking at his target and blinking. 

Flusser’s essays explain and illustrate this inextricable inter¬ 
connectedness of technology and responsibility by tracing 
genetic design chains back into the past. Into old worlds of 
hardship, self-sacrifice, resourcelessness, survival and ultimate 


defeat. For he understood that real design is a language whose 
meaning can best be deciphered under extreme conditions - 
want of knowledge, of resources, of materials, of time - want 
of everything except language and the historically and 
geographically varied descriptors it provides. Products and 
systems created in such circumstances, he believed, truly held 
within themselves the most extreme state of efficiency for the 
task of species survival. They represented design on the edge of 
feasibility, where nothing could be done but somehow the 
possibility of something emerging through human under¬ 
standing remained until the very end. That is where Flusser’s 
vision of the ultimate role of design is to be found: in a 
crowded and polluted world where people will live in virtual 
reality most of the time and don special ‘diving suits’ to visit 
the real world. 

If it is the surprising language and the complete absence of 
the usual list of famous designer names that gives Vilem 
Flusser’s essays on design their freshness and continuing rel¬ 
evance, this is because they are simple without being simplis¬ 
tic. They have a directness that clears the ground. There is no 
overarching narrative, no fragmentation; every essay is 
complete. There is no naive faith in science, no hero-worship, 
no corporate ‘we’, none of the underwriting of the myth of 
individual genius that so often passes for understanding where 
writers on design are concerned. As well as finding no parade 
of famous names, the reader will find no contenders put 
forward for uncritical admiration. Nor, indeed, will he or she 
be presented with pages of expensive photography (hinting as 
it invariably does that a deal has been done on the basis of a 
total suspension of critical faculties). 

On the contrary. Flusser’s liberated viewpoint permitted 
him a tremendous freedom of expression, a freedom, one 
might say, without equal in contemporary design literature. As 
a result, his writing became by turns pyrotechnic and wither- 
ingly critical, as well as pungent with meaning. All expressed in 


short, stabbing essays replete with dazzling generalizations 
which turn out to be supported by an impregnable structure 
of argument drawn from reality itself. 

Vilem Flusser the philosopher was born in Prague on 12 
May 1920 into a family of Jewish intellectuals. His father, 

Gustav Flusser, was a Professor of Mathematics at Charles 
University; his mother was an artist. But despite his secure 
bourgeois background, his relations with his native country 
were destined to be short and tragic. The Republic of 
Czechoslovakia into which he was born had only recently been 
formed from two breakaway provinces of Austria-Hungary 
and had only nineteen years of life ahead of it. Flusser grew up 
in this fragile creation of the Treaty of Versailles and, against 
all probability, was destined to die in 1991 in its newly liberated 
Cold War successor, for although he left Prague at the age of 
nineteen and did not return until he was seventy-one, he died 
in a car crash on the outskirts of the city. 

The Czechoslovakia of Flusser’s childhood and youth was 
one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan and avant-garde centres of 
art, industry and design. Occupying the industrial heartland of 
the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, it inherited - along with a 
population of only 14 million - an enormous excess of raw 
materials and an industrial capacity sufficient for a population 
of 60 million or more. From its inception, the new republic 
was an industrial producer and exporter, and its exports 
opened it up to world influences. Modern design flourished in 
the arts and in architecture, in the aircraft and motor indus¬ 
tries and in the manufacture of military equipment. By the 
mid-i930s, Prague was boasting the most advanced collection 
of modern buildings in the world. Outside the capital, the 
model industrial city of Zlin was planned by the Swiss archi¬ 
tect Le Corbusier as the first and only city to be three-dimen- 
sionally modular. In the same way, the Bata factory city of 
Brno boasted the first and only building to be equipped with 
mobile offices in lifts. 


Whether Flusser’s interest in design was triggered by this 
uniquely modern heritage is impossible to say. In any case, the 
window of opportunity for the small country was already clos¬ 
ing. Czech independence was threatened as soon as Germany 
and Austria reunited in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles; 
within a year, Hitler had annexed the formerly Prussian 
Sudetenland and incorporated the two provinces of Bohemia 
and Moravia into the Reich. This last event, the second of no 
less than five radical restructurings the state of Czechoslovakia 
was to undergo in the twentieth century, placed the young 
Flusser in mortal danger. 

In 1939, in his first year as a student of philosophy at his 
fathers university, Flusser narrowly escaped the appalling fate 
of most of the Jews trapped inside the frontiers of Hitler’s 
Germany. Thanks to the determination and family resources 
of a fellow student, Edith Barth, daughter of a wealthy indus¬ 
trialist, he was extricated from the country after the outbreak 
of World War II, managing to join Barth in England. From 
there, the pair made their way to Brazil, where the Barth family 
had industrial interests. Vilem and Edith were married in Rio 
de Janeiro in 1941 and proceeded to raise three children. 

Flusser was to remain in South America for 30 years. His good 
fortune can be measured by the fact that he was the sole 
member of his family to escape the Holocaust. 

Flusser’s career as a philosopher began in Sao Paulo, where 
his family resettled from Rio in the 1940s. There he worked as 
the manager of a transformer factory, learned Portuguese, 
studied philosophy and wrote copiously. His first publication 
on the philosophy of language appeared in 1957. Later he aban¬ 
doned industry and taught humanities to engineering 
students at the university. In 1963, he published his first book, 
Lingua e Realidade (Language and Reality); in 1964, he became 
co-editor of the learned Revista Brasileira de Filosofia 
(Brazilian Review of Philosophy). In the following year, he 
published an influential article in this review entitled ‘The 


Crisis of Science’, a paper that attracted critical attention. In it, 
Flusser maintained that the uncertainty of pure science had 
been masked throughout the modern period by a Romantic 
vulgarization of the enormous pragmatic success of applied 
science. The contemporary crisis to which his title refers was 
largely due to the uncertainty that was surfacing at long last. 
‘Science’ he wrote in 1964, ‘has become automated and has 
transformed scientists into its own tools.’ 

This idea of productive processes so optimized by special¬ 
ized tools, equipment and protocols that their operators 
become their real products was to recur in Flusser’s writing, as 
it does in this collection. The essay included here under the 
title ‘The Factory’, for example, expresses this idea, although it 
was published many years later in Germany. With a character¬ 
istic Flusserian flourish, it begins with the proposition that ‘the 
science, politics, art and religion of [any society] can be traced 
back to its factory organization and way of manufacturing 
pots.’ This is followed by an even more extreme restatement, 
that ‘human history is the history of manufacturing and every¬ 
thing else is mere footnotes’, or - as the same thought appears 
elsewhere in these essays - ‘All revolutions are technical revo¬ 
lutions.’ In ‘The Factory’, Flusser dismantles this assertion and 
then reassembles it. He does this by defining the successive 
phases of the history of manufacturing - ‘hands, tools, 
machines, robots’ - and then moves on to show that, as they 
have evolved from one stage to the next, factories have not 
become places where goods are produced so much as places 
where new kinds of human beings are produced as well: ‘First 
hand-man, then tool-man, then machine-man, and finally 
robot-man’. Flusser goes on to discuss the human implications 
of the ‘dematerialization’ of the robot factory and to describe 
its resultant post-historical fusion of homo sapiens sapiens with 
homo faber. Finally, like the composer of an adept piece of 
chamber music, he closes on a reprise, completing the loop of 
his argument by proving that manufacturing is congruent 


with learning, since both processes are based on ‘acquiring, 
producing and passing on information’. Thus he proves that 
human history can be seen as ‘a history of manufacturing and 
everything else is mere footnotes’. 

Although he published books in Brazil during the 1960s - 
Lingua e Realidade and the first version of his best-known 
work, Filosofia da Caixa Preta (Towards a Philosophy of 
Photography) (later to appear in a successful German edition 
and ultimately to be translated into seventeen languages, inex¬ 
plicably excluding English), Flusser’s principal achievement 
during his creative years in Sao Paulo was the development of 
the concept of philosophical science fiction and the invention 
of its accompanying literary form, the short philosophical 
essay, a genre that he swiftly made his own. 

By the time he had reached his middle years, Flusser had 
become a man of fixed and somewhat eccentric habits. 
According to Brazilian friends, he was - and determinedly 
remained - domestically incapable and could not (or would 
not) drive. He refused to buy books, although he accepted 
them as gifts, and in his own writings he seldom if ever 
acknowledged other authors. Inflexible in his daily routines, 
he wrote in the mornings and socialized in the afternoons. His 
writing method evolved in the era of the portable manual 
typewriter, and he never changed it thereafter, despite the 
explosion of information technology through which he was to 
live and about which he was to philosophize. Daily he placed a 
light-weight top sheet and single carbon copy in his portable 
with its pica typeface. He rejected electric and electronic type¬ 
writers because he objected to the noises they made, and he 
rejected the offer of a word processor out of hand - despite 
once being given one as a present by his son Miguel, today 
the owner of a software company in Sao Paulo. Flusser 
defended his preference for manual over automatic machines 
by claiming that the silence between keystrokes coupled with 
the physical act of returning the carriage left to right, left to 


right, punctuated his thoughts at the correct intervals for 

The length of Flusser’s essays and his drastic editing proce¬ 
dures were similarly ritualized. Because he invariably typed 
single-spaced copy with narrow margins and seldom used 
more than four sheets of paper at a sitting, he tended to 
produce dense documents with up to 400 words per page. 
These were inherently difficult to edit in the traditional 
manner. Although on surviving manuscripts there is some 
evidence of deletion and revision, in general Flusser dealt with 
the problem of editing by rereading his essays on completion 
and, if he did not like them, scrapping the originals and writ¬ 
ing them again from the beginning, sometimes in a different 
language. Fluent in Czech, German, French, English and 
Portuguese, and with knowledge of many other languages, he 
used their various etymologies as tools for changing or elabo¬ 
rating meaning, as well as breaking through blocks in his flow 
of words. 

Of the fortunes of his short philosophical essays, we know 
only that most remained unpublished until the 1970s, when 
for a few months he wrote regular columns in two separate 
Brazilian newspapers, the Estado de Sao Paulo and the Folha de 
Sao Paulo , in the latter of which his contributions were entitled 
‘Posto Zero’ (‘taking no position’) - a prudent stance during 
the years of the military dictatorship in Brazil. These news¬ 
paper pieces were ephemeral and have never been translated 
from the Portuguese, although they have been collected and 
published in Brazil. They are said to be reminiscent of his 
aggressive debating style and to reflect his sense of humour. 
There can be no doubt that they influenced and added pace 
and flow to the articles dealing with the arts, media and 
communications that he soon began contributing to 
American, French and German art and cultural magazines. 
During the late 1970s and 1980s, many of his best essays were 
written for the American magazines Artforum, Main Currents, 


Leonardo and Art International. For the French, he contributed 
to Artitudes, Theatre Public and Communication et langages. 
Essays written in German appeared in European Photography, 
Design Report, Arch + and a large number of newspapers and 
photographic magazines. 

Today approximately 70 philosophical essays written in 
English survive in the Vilem Flusser archive in Germany. 
Probably another hundred, written in Portuguese, survive in 
Brazil, together with another 70 or so written in German 
towards the end of his life, from which the essays printed here 
were taken. Within this total output, which spans the period 
from the mid-1960s until Flusser’s death and which excludes 
all his full-length books, there is inevitably some considerable 
duplication as a result of the coexistence of successive versions 
of the same text, together with differing versions of one text 
rewritten in another language. There are undoubtedly suffi¬ 
cient unpublished essays to fill a series of books. 

In 1972, Vilem and Edith Flusser returned to Europe, at first 
to Merano in Italy and then to Robion in the south of France, 
where Flusser met and began his long-standing collaboration 
with the artist Louis Bee and where he adopted the peripatetic 
life of a writer and lecturer. He gave lectures and seminars at 
the Art Academy of Aix-en-Provence, the Ecole Nationale 
Superieure de la Photographic in Arles and the University of 
Provence. But this was just the beginning. 

Flusser’s first appearance at a German cultural event took 
place in 1981 at the Diisseldorf Photography Symposium. Two 
years later, by which time Filosofia da Caixa Preta had been 
published in Germany to great critical acclaim, Flusser had 
become a popular speaker at scientific and artistic conferences 
concerned with the new media in Europe and the United 
States. It was during this time, reflecting on the extraordinary 
story of Flusser’s life, that someone asked him if he considered 
himself an international man. ‘Inter’, he replied, ‘but not 
national.’ Flusser’s last engagement before his ill-fated visit to 


Prague in November 1991 took the form of a series of seminars 
on communications at the Ruhr University of Bochum, of 
which a complete video record exists. 

Perhaps the oddest and most revealing essay in this collec¬ 
tion on design is entitled ‘The Submarine’. It exemplifies the 
writing style of Flusser’s later German period - during which 
time he occupied himself with wide-ranging and topical ques¬ 
tions - but also recalls the philosophical science fiction of his 
Brazilian days. In it, he appears to be recounting the story of a 
monstrous attempt to destroy humanity, but in reality he is 
composing a parable for the coming transformation of materi¬ 
alistic civilization. He begins by describing a global state of 
frenzied activity in which everything has ceased to work and 
‘the eventual destruction of the world of things was only a 
question of time ... years rather than decades.’ Then he 
recounts the response of 17 prominent experts, professional 
men and women who misappropriate public funds to build a 
gigantic submarine in an abandoned shipyard in Norway, as a 
kind of inverted Noah’s Ark. Together they constitute a kind of 
‘collective super-brain’ which they base at the bottom of the 
Pacific Ocean, whence they threaten everyone in the world 
with destruction unless they pledge allegiance to a number of 
ruling principles. At first, the submariners have some success, 
but soon the altruistic principles they propound unite human¬ 
ity against them. The giant submarine and its occupants are 
destroyed. This is Flusser’s metaphor for the revolt of belief 
against modernity and the return of reality to a world of intol¬ 
erable abstraction. 

‘I tried all my life to find myself in order to commit myself,’ 
Vilem Flusser once wrote in an autobiographical essay. ‘But I 
did not even begin to live. I spent my life being available, and I 
am still available.’ In the form of a rich tapestry of writings, of 
which this collection is the first to be published in English, the 
voice silenced forever on the morning of 27 November 1991 is 
still available. 


About the Word Design 

In English, the word design is both a noun and a verb (which 
tells one a lot about the nature of the English language). As a 
noun, it means - among other things - ‘intention’, ‘plan’, 
‘intent’, ‘aim’, ‘scheme’, ‘plot’, ‘motif’, ‘basic structure’, all these 
(and other meanings) being connected with ‘cunning’ and 
‘deception’. As a verb (‘to design’), meanings include ‘to 
concoct something’, ‘to simulate’, ‘to draft’, ‘to sketch’, ‘to fash¬ 
ion’, ‘to have designs on something’. The word is derived from 
the Latin signum, meaning ‘sign’, and shares the same ancient 
root. Thus, etymologically, design means ‘de-sign’. This raises 
the question: How has the word design come to achieve its 
present-day significance throughout the world? This question 
is not a historical one, in the sense of sending one off to exam¬ 
ine texts for evidence of when and where the word came to be 
established in its present-day meaning. It is a semantic ques¬ 
tion, in the sense of causing one to consider precisely why this 
word has such significance attached to it in contemporary 
discourse about culture. 

The word occurs in contexts associated with cunning and 
deceit. A designer is a cunning plotter laying his traps. Falling 
into the same category are other very significant words: in 
particular, mechanics and machine. The Greek mechos means a 
device designed to deceive - i.e. a trap - and the Trojan Horse 
is one example of this. Ulysses is called polymechanikos, which 
schoolchildren translate as ‘the crafty one’. The word mechos 
itself derives from the ancient MAGH, which we recognize in 
the German Macht and mogen, the English ‘might’ and ‘may’. 
Consequently, a machine is a device designed to deceive; a 
lever, for example, cheats gravity, and ‘mechanics’ is the trick 
of fooling heavy bodies. 

Another word used in the same context is ‘technology’. The 
Greek techne means ‘art’ and is related to tekton, a ‘carpenter’. 


The basic idea here is that wood (hyle in Greek) is a shapeless 
material to which the artist, the technician, gives form, thereby 
causing the form to appear in the first place. Plato’s basic 
objection to art and technology was that they betray and 
distort theoretically intelligible forms (‘Ideas’) when they 
transfer these into the material world. For him, artists and 
technicians were traitors to Ideas and tricksters because they 
cunningly seduced people into perceiving distorted ideas. 

The Latin equivalent of the Greek techne is ars , which in fact 
suggests a metaphor similar to the English rogue’s ‘sleight of 
hand’. The diminutive of ars is articulum - i.e. little art - and 
indicates that something is turned around the hand (as in the 
French tour de main). Hence ars means something like ‘agility’ 
or the ‘ability to turn something to one’s advantage’, and 
artifex- i.e. ‘artist’ - means a ‘trickster’ above all. That the 
original artist was a conjurer can be seen from words such as 
‘artifice’, ‘artificial’ and even ‘artillery’. In German, an artist is of 
course one who is ‘able to do something’, the German word for 
art, Kunst, being the noun from konnen, ‘to be able’ or ‘can’, but 
there again the word for ‘artificial’, gekunstelt, comes from the 
same root (as does the English‘cunning’). 

Such considerations in themselves constitute a sufficient 
explanation of why the word design occupies the position it 
does in contemporary discourse. The words design, machine, 
technology, ars and art are closely related to one another, one 
term being unthinkable without the others, and they all derive 
from the same existential view of the world. However, this 
internal connection has been denied for centuries (at least 
since the Renaissance). Modern bourgeois culture made a 
sharp division between the world of the arts and that of tech¬ 
nology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutu¬ 
ally exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and ‘hard’, 
the other aesthetic, evaluative and ‘soft’. This unfortunate split 
started to become irreversible towards the end of the nine¬ 
teenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge 


between the two. It could do this since it is an expression of the 
internal connection between art and technology. Hence in 
contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where 
art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and 
scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a 
new form of culture possible. 

Although this is a good explanation, it is not satisfactory on 
its own. After all, what links the terms mentioned above is that 
they all have connotations of (among other things) deception 
and trickery. The new form of culture which Design was to 
make possible would be a culture that was aware of the fact 
that it was deceptive. So the question is: Who and what are we 
deceiving when we become involved with culture (with art, 
with technology - in short, with Design)? To take one exam¬ 
ple: The lever is a simple machine. Its design copies the human 
arm; it is an artificial arm. Its technology is probably as old as 
the species homo sapiens, perhaps even older. And this 
machine, this design, this art, this technology is intended to 
cheat gravity, to fool the laws of nature and, by means of 
deception, to escape our natural circumstances through the 
strategic exploitation of a law of nature. By means of the lever 
- despite our body weight - we ought to be able to raise 
ourselves up to touch the stars if we have to, and - thanks to 
the lever - if we are given the leverage, we might be able to 
lever the world out of its orbit. This is the design that is the 
basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, 
to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a 
machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves. In 
short: The design behind all culture has to be deceptive 
(artful?) enough to turn mere mammals conditioned by 
nature into free artists. 

This is a great explanation, is it not? The word design has 
come to occupy the position it has in contemporary discourse 
through our awareness that being a human being is a design 
against nature. Unfortunately, this explanation will not satisfy 


us. If in fact design increasingly becomes the centre of atten¬ 
tion, with the question of Design replacing that of the Idea, we 
will find ourselves on uncertain ground. To take one example: 
Plastic pens are getting cheaper and cheaper and tend to be 
given away for nothing. The material they are made of has 
practically no value, and work (according to Marx, the source 
of all value) is accomplished thanks to smart technology by 
fully automatic machines. The only thing that gives plastic 
pens any value is their design, which is the reason that they 
write. This design represents a coming together of great ideas, 
which - being derived from art and science - have cross-fertil¬ 
ized and creatively complemented one another. Yet this is a 
design we don’t even notice, so such pens tend to be given 
away free - as advertising, for example. The great ideas behind 
them are treated with the same contempt as the material and 
work behind them. 

How can we explain this devaluation of all values? By the 
fact that the word design makes us aware that all culture is 
trickery, that we are tricksters tricked, and that any involve¬ 
ment with culture is the same thing as self-deception. True, 
once the barrier between art and technology had been broken 
down, a new perspective opened up within which one could 
create more and more perfect designs, escape one’s circum¬ 
stances more and more, live more and more artistically (beau¬ 
tifully). But the price we pay for this is the loss of truth and 
authenticity. In fact, the lever is about to lever all that is true 
and authentic out of our orbit and replace it mechanically 
with perfectly designed artefacts. And so all these artefacts 
become as valuable as plastic pens, become disposable gadgets. 
This becomes clear when we die, if not before. Because despite 
all the technological and artistic arrangements we make 
(despite hospital architecture and death-bed design), we do 
die, just as other mammals die. The word design has managed 
to retain its key position in everyday discourse because we are 
starting (perhaps rightly) to lose faith in art and technology as 


sources of value. Because we are starting to wise up to the 
design behind them. 

This is a sobering explanation. But it is also an unavoidable 
one. A confession is called for here. This essay has had a 
specific design in mind: It set out to expose the cunning and 
deceptive aspects of the word design. This it did because they 
are normally concealed. If it had pursued another design, it 
might, for example, have insisted on the fact that ‘design’ is 
related to ‘sign’: a sign of the times, a sign of things to come, a 
sign of membership. In that case, it would have given a differ¬ 
ent, but equally plausible, explanation of the word’s contem¬ 
porary situation. That’s the answer then: Everything depends 
on Design. 


Form and Material 

A lot of nonsense has been talked about the word immaterial. 
But when people start to speak of‘immaterial culture’, such 
nonsense can no longer be tolerated. This essay aspires to clear 
away the distorted concept of the ‘immaterial’. 

The word materia is the result of the Romans’ attempt to 
translate the Greek term hyle into Latin. Hyle originally meant 
‘wood’, and the fact that the word materia must have meant 
something similar is still suggested by the Spanish word 
madera. When, however, the Greek philosophers took up the 
word hyle, they were thinking not of wood in general but of 
the particular wood stored in carpenters’ workshops. In fact, 
what they were concerned with was finding a word that could 
express the opposite of the term form (Greek morphe). Thus 
hyle means something amorphous. The basic idea here is this: 
The world of phenomena that we perceive with our senses is 
an amorphous stew behind which are concealed eternal, 
unchanging forms which we can perceive by means of the 
supersensory perspective of theory. The amorphous stew of 
phenomena (the ‘material world’) is an illusion, and reality, 
which can be discovered by means of theory, consists of the 
forms concealed behind this illusion (the ‘formal world’). 
Discovered, indeed, in such a way that one recognizes how the 
amorphous phenomena flow into forms, occupy them in 
order to flow out into the amorphous once more. 

We get closer to this opposition hyle/morphe or ‘matter’/ 
‘form’ if we translate the word matter as ‘stuff’. The word stuff 
is both a noun and a verb (‘to stuff’). The material world is 
that which is stuffed into forms; it gives them a filling. This is 
much more plausible than the image of wood being cut into 
forms. For it demonstrates that the world of stuff only comes 
about when it is stuffed into something. The French word 
for filling is farce, this makes it possible to claim that, from a 


theoretical perspective, everything material in the world, 
everything made up of stuff, is a farce. This theoretical 
perspective, in the course of the development of science, 
entered into a dialectical relationship with the sensory 
perspective (‘observation - theory - experiment’), and this can 
be seen as a stumbling-block to theory. It could even lead to 
the sort of materialism for which matter (stuff) is reality. 
Nowadays, however, under pressure from information tech¬ 
nology, we are returning to the original concept of‘matter’ as a 
temporary filling of eternal forms. 

For reasons that would go way beyond the scope of this 
essay, there grew up, independently of the philosophical 
concept of matter, the opposition ‘matter-spirit’. The original 
conception here was that solid bodies could be turned into 
liquid and liquid bodies into gas, in so doing escaping the field 
of vision. Thus, for example, breath (Greek pneuma, Latin 
spiritus) can be seen as a turning of the solid human body into 
gas. The transformation from solid to gas (from body to spirit) 
can be observed in one’s breath in cold weather. 

In modern science, the concept of changing states of aggre¬ 
gation (solid > liquid > gas and back again) has given rise to a 
different world-view, according to which, roughly speaking, 
this change takes place between two horizons. On the one 
horizon (the point of absolute zero), everything whatsoever is 
solid (material), and on the other horizon (at the speed of 
light), everything whatsoever is more than gaseous (high 
energy). (One is reminded that ‘gas’ and ‘chaos’ are the same 
word.) The ‘matter-energy’ opposition that arises here makes 
one think of spiritualism: One can transform matter into 
energy (fission) and energy into matter (fusion) (this is 
expressed in Einstein’s formula). According to the world-view 
of modern science, everything is energy - i.e. the possibility of 
chance, improbable agglomeration, of the formation of 
matter. In such a world-view, ‘matter’ equals temporary islands 
consisting of agglomerations (warps) in high-energy fields of 


possibility which intersect with one another. Hence all the 
fashionable nonsense talked nowadays about ‘immaterial 
culture’. What is meant by this is a culture in which informa¬ 
tion is entered into the electromagnetic field and transmitted 
there. What is nonsense is not just the misuse of the term 
immaterial (instead of high-energy ) but also the uninformed 
use of the term inform. 

To return to the original opposition ‘matter-form’ - i.e. 
‘content-container’. The basic idea is this: When I see some¬ 
thing, a table for example, I see wood in the form of a table. It 
is true that the table is being hard as I am seeing it (I bump 
into it), but I know that this state is transitory (it will be burnt 
and decompose into amorphous ash). But the table-form is 
eternal, since I can imagine it anywhere and at any time 
(see it in my mind’s theoretical eye). Hence the form of the 
table is real, and the content of the table (the wood) is only 
apparent. This illustrates what carpenters do: They take the 
form of a table (the ‘idea’ of a table) and impose it upon an 
amorphous piece of wood. The tragedy here is that in so 
doing they not only in-form the wood (impose the table form 
on it) but also deform the idea of the table (distort it in the 
wood). The tragedy is therefore that it is impossible to make 
an ideal table. 

This all sounds very archaic, but it is in fact so up-to-date 
that it deserves to be called a ‘burning issue’. Take a simple, and 
hopefully plausible, example: Heavy bodies appear to roll 
around without following any rules, but in reality they behave 
according to the formula of free fall. The movement perceived 
by the senses (that which is material about the bodies) is 
apparent, and the theoretically intelligible formula (that which 
is formal about the bodies) is real. And this formula, this form, 
is without time and space, unalterably eternal. The formula of 
free fall is a mathematical equation, and equations are without 
time and space. There is no point in trying to ask whether T + 

1 = 2’ is also true at 4:00 p.m. in Vladivostok. There is just as 


little point, however, in saying of the formula that it is ‘imma¬ 
terial’. It is the How of the material, and the material is the 
What of the form. To put it another way: The information ‘free 
fall’ has a content (body) and a form (a mathematical 
formula). This is approximately how it would have been put in 
the Baroque period. 

But the question remains: How did Galileo come up with 
this idea? Did he discover it theoretically behind phenomena 
(Platonic interpretation), did he invent it as a means of orien¬ 
tation amidst bodies, or did he spend a lot of time playing 
around with bodies and ideas until he worked out the idea of 
free fall? The answer to this question will decide whether the 
edifice of science and art stands or falls, this crystal palace 
composed of algorithms and theorems that we call Western 
culture. To clarify this problem, to illustrate the question in 
formal terms, what follows is a further example from the time 
of Galileo. 

It is all a question of the relation between heaven and earth. 
If the heavens, with the moon, the sun, the planets and the 
fixed stars, revolve around the earth (as they appear to do), 
then the heavens revolve in very complicated epicyclical orbits, 
some of which must be in reverse. If the sun is at the centre, 
and the earth becomes a heavenly body, then the orbits run in 
relatively simple elliptical forms. The Baroque answer to this 
question was that in reality, the sun was at the centre and the 
ellipses were real forms; the epicyclical Ptolemaic forms were 
figures of speech, fictions, forms invented to maintain appear¬ 
ances (to save phenomena). Today our thinking is more 
formal than it was at that time, and our answer goes like this: 
Ellipses are more convenient forms than epicycles, and there¬ 
fore they are to be preferred. But ellipses are less convenient 
than circles, and circles unfortunately cannot be applied here. 
It is therefore no longer a question of what is real but of what 
is convenient, and it turns out that one can’t simply apply 
convenient forms to phenomena (in this case circles), only the 


most convenient of those that fit them. In short: Forms are 
neither discoveries nor inventions, neither Platonic Ideas nor 
fictions, but containers cobbled together for phenomena 
(‘models’). And theoretical science is neither ‘true’ nor ‘ficti¬ 
tious’ but ‘formal’ (model-designing). 

If‘form’ is the opposite of‘matter’, then no design exists 
that could be called ‘material’: It is always in-forming. And if 
form is the ‘How’ of matter, and‘matter’ the ‘What’ of form, 
then design is one of the methods of giving form to matter 
and making it appear as it does and not like something else. 
Design, like all cultural expressions, illustrates that matter 
does not appear (is not apparent) except in so far as one 
in-forms it, and that, once in-formed, it starts to appear 
(become a phenomenon). Thus matter in design, as every¬ 
where in culture, is the way in which forms appear. 

Nevertheless, to speak of design being between the 
material and the ‘immaterial’ is not completely beside the 
point. There are in fact two different ways of seeing and think¬ 
ing: the material and the formal. The Baroque period was 
material: The sun is really at the centre, and stones really fall 
according to a formula. (It was material and, for precisely 
that reason, not materialistic.) Our period is more formal: 

The sun at the centre and the equation of free fall are practical 
forms. (This is formal, and precisely for that reason not 
unmaterialistic.) These two ways of seeing and thinking 
result in two different ways of designing. The material one 
results in representations (for example, animal paintings on 
cave walls). The formal one results in models (for example, 
designs for irrigation canals on Mesopotamian tablets). The 
first way of seeing emphasizes the apparent in a form; the 
second way emphasizes the form in the appearance. Thus 
the history of painting, for example, can be seen as a process in 
the course of which material seeing (with some set-backs of 
course) takes on a leading role. An illustration of this is the 


An important step in the direction of formalization was the 
introduction of perspective. For the first time, it was a 
conscious question of filling preconceived forms with material, 
of making phenomena appear in particular forms. A further 
step was made by Cezanne, for example, who managed to 
impose two or three forms at the same time onto one material 
(for example, to ‘show’ an apple from several perspectives). 

This was carried to the extreme by Cubism: It was a matter of 
displaying preconceived geometrical (mutually intersecting) 
forms, in the case of which the material only served to make 
forms appear. One can therefore say of this sort of painting 
that, moving between content and container, between material 
and form, between the material and the formal aspect of 
phenomena, it approaches that which is referred to, incorrectly, 
as the ‘immaterial’. 

All this, however, is just a lead-up to the production of so- 
called ‘artificial images’. These make the question of the rela¬ 
tion between material and form a ‘burning issue’ for the first 
time today. What is at issue is the technical equipment allow¬ 
ing one to display algorithms (mathematical formulae) as 
colour (and possibly moving) images on screens. This is differ¬ 
ent from designing canals on Mesopotamian tablets, different 
from designing cubes and cones in Cubist paintings, even 
different from designing plausible aeroplanes by the use of 
calculations. Because in the first case, it is a matter of design¬ 
ing forms for materials in which they will be encapsulated in 
the future (the form of canals, of Demoiselles d’Avignon, of 
Mirage jets), and in the second case it is a matter of ‘pure’ 
Platonic forms. The fractal equations, for example, that are 
displayed on screens as Mandelbrot’s little gingerbread men 
lack material (even if they can be filled with material such as 
mountain ranges, storm-clouds or snowflakes). Such artificial 
images can be referred to (mistakenly) as ‘immaterial’, not 
because they show up in the electromagnetic field but because 
they display material-free, empty forms. 


The ‘burning issue’ is therefore the fact that in the past 
(since the time of Plato and even earlier), it was a matter of 
forming the material to hand to make it appear, but now what 
we have is a flood of forms pouring out of our theoretical 
perspective and our technical equipment, and this flood we fill 
with material so as to ‘materialize’ the forms. In the past, it was 
a matter of giving formal order to the apparent world of mate¬ 
rial, but now it is a question of making a world appear that is 
largely encoded in figures, a world of forms that are multiply¬ 
ing uncontrollably. In the past, it was a matter of formalizing a 
world taken for granted, but now it is a matter of realizing the 
forms designed to produce alternative worlds. That means an 
‘immaterial culture’, though it should actually be called a 
‘materializing culture’. 

What is at issue is the concept of in-formation. In other 
words, imposing forms on materials. This has been apparent 
since the Industrial Revolution. A steel tool in a press is a form, 
and it in-forms the flood of glass or plastic flowing past it into 
bottles or ashtrays. In the past, it was a question of distinguish¬ 
ing between true and false information. True information was 
when the forms were discoveries, and false information was 
when the forms were fictions. This distinction is becoming 
pointless since we have started to see forms neither as discov¬ 
eries ( aletheiai ) nor as fictions, but as models. In the past, there 
was a point in distinguishing between science and art, and 
now this has become pointless. The criteria for criticizing 
information is now more like the following questions: To what 
extent are the forms being imposed here capable of being 
filled with material? To what extent are they capable of being 
realized? To what extent is the information practical or 

It is therefore not a question of whether images are the 
surfaces of materials or the contents of electromagnetic fields. 
But a question of the extent to which they arise from material, 
as opposed to formal, thinking and seeing. Whatever ‘material’ 


may mean, it cannot mean the opposite of‘immaterial’. For the 
‘immaterial’ or, to be more precise, the form is that which 
makes material appear in the first place. The appearance of the 
material is form. And this is of course a post-material claim. 


War and the State of Things 

Goethe, as is well known, recommends that Man be ‘noble, 
generous and good’, thus showing how far we have left the 
Enlightenment behind. Imagine reading out Goethe’s state¬ 
ment at a mass demonstration of fundamentalists in Algiers, 
for instance (albeit in an Arabic translation). One can never¬ 
theless attempt to bring the qualities enumerated in Goethe’s 
statement up to date. ‘Noble’ might be replaced by ‘elegant’, 
and ‘generous’ perhaps by ‘user-friendly’. The difficulty would 
be to reformulate the word good for the end of the 
Millennium. In addition, one would have to define Goethe’s 
term Man a little less precisely. Because since the demise of 
humanism, we can no longer speak of Man in general 
anymore. My essay entitled ‘The Ethics of Industrial Design?’ 
(see pp. 66-9) sets out to transfer Goethe’s good, but probably 
overly ambitious, recommendation to the debate about design 
in the following terms: ‘Let Man be elegant, user-friendly and 

Let one simple example illustrate the problem. Take the case 
of designing a paper-knife. Let the designer be elegant: Let the 
knife be exceptional without being obtrusive (i.e. noble). Let 
the designer be user-friendly: Let the knife be easy to handle 
without any special knowledge (i.e. generous). Let the designer 
be good: Let the knife be so efficient that it can cut through 
paper (or anything resistant). As has already been indicated, 
the notion of the good is problematic. After all, a knife can be 
too good: It can not only cut paper but also its user’s finger. 
Perhaps, then, Goethe’s recommendation needs to be refor¬ 
mulated slightly: ‘Let Man be noble, generous and good, but - 
having said that - does he need to be all that good?’ 

What if one were to take as an example instead of the 
paper-knife one of those rockets that were deployed in the 
Gulf War. No doubt the designers of these objects are 


extremely noble men: The rockets are elegant and can be 
considered as characteristic works of contemporary art. Nor is 
there any doubt about the designers being extremely generous 
people: Even though the rockets are complex systems, they are 
so easy to get to know your way around that any semi-literate 
lout on the Upper Euphrates could use them. One could, 
however, argue that the rockets’ designers are much too good 
as people because these objects not only kill well (as they are 
supposed to do) but also set off other rockets which then kill 
whoever uses them. 

The noble, generous and all-too-good designers of the Iraqi 
rockets were probably Russian engineers. Perhaps they had 
read Goethe (although in Russia they were more likely to have 
been made to read Schiller at secondary school). From the 
perspective of these noble men, there was nothing to criticize 
about the quotation from Goethe. The fact that the users of 
the rockets were killed represented a challenge for the design¬ 
ers to become even better. In other words: to design rockets 
that killed the killers of the first killers to be killed. This is what 
is called progress: Thanks to this feedback in design, men 
become better and better. And thus more generous and noble 
as well. Of course, such optimism - based as it is on dialectical 
materialism - can be criticized from other perspectives. 

This is not the time or place to argue against the progressive 
improvement of design as a result of war. In other words: to 
accuse what is known as the military-industrial complex of 
being the origin of everything elegant, amiable and good. The 
Gulf War made plain yet again what it would be like if there 
were no wars. If in their day our ancestors in East Africa 
100,000 years ago had not designed arrow-heads that were at 
the same time elegant, user-friendly and good (and that could 
therefore kill with elegant convenience), then we would proba¬ 
bly still be laying into each other or into animals with our 
teeth and nails. It may be that war is not the only source of 
good design (perhaps sex is also involved here; see fashions in 


clothing, for example). But whether one prefers to say‘Make 
love and war’ or ‘Make love,’ it is certainly not in the interest of 
good design to say‘Make love not war.’ 

There are, however, people who are against war. They are 
not willing to be killed by rockets (although, when asked, they 
cannot say what kind of death they would prefer). Such people 
are prepared, in the interest of peace, to accept bad design. 
They are downright pleased if rockets, paper-knives and 
arrow-heads get worse and worse and thus become less and 
less elegant, less and less convenient. They are good people in a 
totally different sense of‘goodness’ from the one intended. 
These good people are good for nothing but for simply exist¬ 
ing. They are anti-designers. 

Admittedly, when you see them completely at home using 
the pavement designed in spite of them, one gets the impres¬ 
sion that they nevertheless do design things: jewellery for 
instance. But they cannot keep this up for very long because 
one cannot ‘make love’ forever (which the jewellery is intended 
for) without lapsing into ‘making war’. One cannot at the same 
time be ‘good in oneself’ and ‘good for something’; one has to 
make a choice to be either a saint or a designer. 

There may be a way out of this dilemma: either war and an 
elegant, user-friendly life in the midst of good objects, or 
everlasting peace and a squalid, inconvenient life in the midst 
of badly functioning objects. Putting it another way: either 
bad and convenient or inconvenient and saintly. Perhaps one 
could propose a compromise: to design objects intentionally 
less well than one might do. For example, arrow-heads that 
continually miss, paper-knives that take less and less time to 
get blunt, rockets that tend to explode in the air. Of course, 
one would also have to put up with chairs that threatened to 
collapse under the sitter and light bulbs that were continually 
blowing out. This compromise between malevolence and 
saintliness is widely recognized as being the goal of various 
peace conferences (which are, unfortunately, only rarely 


attended by designers themselves). In this case, Goethe’s 
recommendation might go something like this: ‘Let Man be 
noble, generous and more or less good, and thus, as time goes 
by, less and less noble and generous as well.’ But then one 
would still not have escaped the question of good, for the 
following reasons: 

Between pure good (‘moral’ good), which is good for noth¬ 
ing, and applied good (‘functional’ good), there can be 
absolutely no compromise, because in the end everything 
which is good in the case of applied good is bad in the case of 
moral good. Whoever decides to become a designer has 
decided against pure good. They may disguise this as much as 
they wish (for example, by refusing to design rockets and 
limiting themselves to designing doves of peace). They remain, 
by their very involvement, trapped within the ambit of func¬ 
tional good. If they in fact begin to inquire into the pure good 
of their activity (for example, by asking themselves what their 
design for a dove of peace might be good for in the end), they 
are forced not just to design the dove of peace badly, but not to 
design it at all. There can be no such thing as a bad designer 
acting out of nothing but pure good, because even the inten¬ 
tion of producing a bad design is functional and not pure. If 
therefore a designer claims that he only designs objects that 
correspond to his idea of pure good (eternal values and all 
that), he is mistaken. 

Unfortunately, this is the way it is with goodness: Everything 
that is good for something is pure Evil. Those saints are quite 
right who seek refuge in isolation from the world, living off 
roots and hiding their nakedness with leaves. To put this in 
rather more theological language: Pure good is pointless, 
absurd, and, wherever there is a purpose for anything, you will 
find the Devil lying in wait. From the perspective of pure good, 
there is only a difference of degree between the elegant and 
user-friendly designs of a chair and of a rocket: In both cases, 
the Devil is lying in wait. Because they are both functional! 


We have wandered a long way from the Enlightenment and 
have ended up, by means of a back door as it were, with some¬ 
thing like the theological speculations of medieval obscuran¬ 
tism. Since the technicians had to apologize to the Nazis for 
their gas chambers not being good enough - i.e. not killing 
their ‘clients’ quickly enough - we have once more been made 
aware what is meant by the Devil. We realize once more exactly 
what is lying in wait behind the notion of good design. 
Unfortunately, this does not stop us wanting to have elegant 
and convenient objects. We insist, despite what we know about 
the Devil, that the designer should be noble, generous and 


About Forms and Formulae 

The Eternal God (may His name be praised) formed the 
world out of chaos, out of what, according to the Bible, was 
‘without form, and void’. The neurophysiologists (may they 
remain nameless) have sussed Him out, and now every self- 
respecting designer is capable of copying, and doing better 
than, Him. 

This is how it seems: For a long time, the forms to which 
God the Creator had given substance were concealed behind 
the substance, waiting there to be discovered. For example, the 
Lord had invented the form of Heaven and imposed it upon 
chaos on the first day of creation. Thus were the Heavens 
created. People such as Pythagoras and Ptolemy discovered 
and noted God’s forms behind phenomena. They are circles 
and epicycles; this is what is known as research: discovering 
God’s design behind phenomena. 

Since the Renaissance, we have stumbled upon an amazing 
and heretofore undigested fact: The Heavens can, it is true, 
be formulated and formalized in Ptolemaic circles and epicy¬ 
cles, but better still in Copernican circles and Keplerian 

How is that possible? Did God the Creator use circles, epicy¬ 
cles or ellipses on the first day of creation? Or was it the Masters 
of Astronomy, not God the Master, who set out these forms? Is 
it that the forms are not God’s but Man’s? Is it that they may 
not exist eternally in the World Beyond, but that they exist to 
be formed and modelled in This World? Is it that they are not 
Ideas and ideals but forms and models? What is difficult to 
digest about all this is not God’s demotion and His replace¬ 
ment by designers as Creators of the world. No, what is really 
difficult to digest about all this is that the Heavens (along with 
all aspects of nature) cannot be formalized in whatever way we 
might wish, as ought to be the case if we really had assumed 


God’s throne. Why, for example, do the planets follow either 
circular or epicyclical or elliptical orbits rather than quadratic 
or triangular ones? Why can we choose to formulate the laws of 
nature in a variety of ways but not in any way we wish? Might 
there be something out there that is prepared to swallow some 
of our formulae but that spits out others, spits them out in our 
face? Is there perhaps a ‘reality’ out there that allows itself to be 
informed and formulated by us, but that nevertheless demands 
that we adapt ourselves to it? 

This question is difficult to digest since one cannot be the 
designer and the creator of the world and at the same time 
have to submit to this world. Fortunately (‘Thank God’ not 
being appropriate here), we have recently discovered a solu¬ 
tion to this aporia. A solution that forms a loop like a Mobius 
strip. And it starts to look like this: Our central nervous system 
receives digitally coded stimuli from its environment (which 
naturally includes our own body). These stimuli are processed 
by the system, using what are as yet incompletely understood 
electromagnetic and chemical methods, to become percep¬ 
tions, feelings, desires and thoughts. We perceive the world, 
feel, desire and think along the lines the central nervous 
system has processed, and this process is pre-programmed by 
the central nervous system. It is written into the system within 
our genetic information. The world has had the forms it has 
for us laid down within genetic information since life began 
on earth. This explains why we cannot impose any forms we 
wish upon the world. The world only accepts those forms that 
correspond to the program of our life. 

We have managed to pull a fast one, not just one but a 
whole series, on the program of our life. We have in fact 
invented methods and machines that do something similar to 
the nervous system, only in a different way. We can compute 
the stimuli (particles) coming at us from all quarters in a 
different way to the central nervous system. We can produce 
different, alternative perceptions, feelings, desires and 


thoughts. Apart from the world computed by the central 
nervous system, we can also live in other worlds. We can expe¬ 
rience a multiple here and now. And the expression ‘here and 
now’ can have multiple meanings. This statement may seem 
fantastic, terrifying even, but there are more fam il iar terms for 
this state: ‘Cyberspace’ and ‘virtual reality’ are common 
euphemisms for it. They go together with the following 

Take a form, any form, in fact any algorithm that can be 
expressed numerically. Feed this form via a computer into a 
plotter. Stuff the form thus created as completely as possible 
with particles. And there you have it: worlds ready to serve. 
Every one of these worlds is just as real as the central nervous 
system (at least the one we have had so far), providing it 
manages to stuff the forms just as full as the central nervous 
system does. 

This is a fine witches’ brew: We cook up worlds in any form 
we wish, and we do this at least as well as the Creator did in the 
course of the much-celebrated six days. We are the master 
witches’ brewers, the designers, and this makes it possible, now 
that we have outsmarted God, to sweep away all the cant about 
reality, along with Immanuel Kant: ‘Real’ means anything we, 
with our social status, efficiency and perfectionism, give form 
to by the use of the computer; ‘unreal’ means anything (e.g. 
day-dreams, illusions) we do when we use the computer care¬ 
lessly. For example, the dream image of the woman we love is 
not truly real because we have done our dreamwork carelessly. 
If, however, we give the job to a professional designer who may 
have a holograph at his disposal, he will come up with women 
we really love, not careless dreams. This is the way things look 
like they are going. 

We have sussed out the Eternal God (may His name be 
praised), pinched his recipes, and now we can cook even better 
than Him. Is this really such a new story? What about 
Prometheus and the fire he stole? Perhaps we think we are just 


sitting at computers, while in fact we are chained to Mt 
Caucasus? And perhaps there are eagles already sharpening 
their beaks so as to peck out our livers. 


The Designer’s Way of Seeing 

There is a line in the Cherubinischer Wandersmann by the 
seventeenth-century German religious poet Angelus Silesius 
which I quote from memory: ‘The soul has two eyes: one look¬ 
ing into time, the other one looking way ahead into eternity.’ 
(Anyone who wants to be precise can look the quotation up 
and get it right.) The way of seeing through the first eye has 
undergone a series of technical improvements since the inven¬ 
tion of the telescope and the microscope. Nowadays, we can 
command a longer, deeper and sharper insight into time than 
Silesius could have envisaged. Recently, we have even gained 
the ability to condense all of time into a single point in time 
and see everything simultaneously on a television screen. As 
for the second eye, the way of seeing that perceives eternity: 
Only in the last few years have we begun to take the first steps 
towards its technical perfection. That is what this essay is 

The possibility of looking through time into eternity and of 
representing what can be perceived in the process has only 
become relevant since the third millennium. It was in those 
days that people stood on the hills of Mesopotamia looking 
upriver and foresaw floods and droughts and marked lines 
on clay tablets indicating canals that were to be dug in the 
future. At the time, these people were thought of as prophets, 
but we would call them designers instead. This difference in 
the way the ‘second eye of the soul’ is judged is critical. 

The people of Mesopotamia in those days, like most people 
nowadays, held the belief that this way of seeing involved fore¬ 
seeing the future. If someone digs irrigation canals, he does 
this because he can foresee the future course of the river. Since 
the time of the Greek philosophers, however (and in the 
meantime among all more or less educated people), the opin¬ 
ion has been that this second way of seeing sees eternity, not 


the future. Not the future course of the Euphrates but 
the form of all watercourses. Not the trajectory of a rocket but 
the form of all trajectories in which bodies move in gravita¬ 
tional fields. Eternal forms. Only nowadays, educated 
people do not share exactly the same opinion as the Greek 

If we follow Plato, for example (who calls the way of seeing 
through the soul’s second eye ‘theory’), we perceive through 
fleeting phenomena the eternal, immutable Forms (‘Ideas’) 
that exist in heaven. According to this scenario, what was 
happening in those days in Mesopotamia was that some 
people were perceiving and noting theoretical forms behind 
the Euphrates. They were the first to employ geometrical 
theory. The forms they discovered - e.g. triangles - are ‘true 
forms’ (in Greek, ‘truth’ and ‘discovery’ are the same word - i.e. 
aletheia). Yet when they marked the triangles into the clay 
tablets, they were recording them. For example, the sum of the 
angles of a drawn triangle is not exactly 180 degrees, even 
though this is exactly the case with a theoretical triangle. 
Mistakes occur in geometry as theory is translated into prac¬ 
tice. This is the reason why no man-made water system (or 
rocket flight) goes totally according to plan. 

We see things quite differently nowadays. We no longer 
think (in a word) that we discover triangles, but that we invent 
them. People in those days played with forms like triangles so 
as to be able to work out the course of the Euphrates with 
some degree of accuracy, and they then applied one after 
another of the forms they were playing with to the river until 
the river fitted it. Galileo did not discover the formula of free 
fall, he invented it: He tried one formula after another until the 
problem of heavy bodies falling worked out. Thus the theory 
of geometry (and the theory of mechanics) is a design that we 
force upon phenomena in order to get hold of them. This 
sounds more reasonable than the Platonic belief in heavenly 
Ideas, but in reality it is exceptionally unsettling. 


If the so-called laws of nature are our invention, why do the 
Euphrates and rockets keep to them and not to other forms 
and formulae that are just as good? Admittedly, whether the 
sun orbits the earth or the earth orbits the sun is simply a 
question of design. But is the way stones fall a question of 
design? To put it another way: If we no longer share Plato’s 
opinion that the designer of phenomena is in heaven and has 
to be discovered in theory, but believe instead that we 
ourselves design phenomena, why then do they seem to be as 
they are instead of looking the way we wish them to be? This 
unsettling aspect cannot be sidestepped here. 

On the other hand, there is no doubt that forms, whether 
discovered or invented, whether made by a heavenly or a 
human designer, are eternal - i.e. free of all time and space. 

The sum of the angles of a theoretical triangle is always and 
eternally 180 degrees, whether we discovered it in heaven or 
invented it at the drawing-board. And if we warp the drawing- 
board and design non-Euclidean triangles with the sum of 
their angles being different, then such triangles are also eter¬ 
nal. The designer’s way of seeing - both the human and the 
heavenly designer’s - doubtless corresponds to that of the 
soul’s second eye. Here there arises the following intriguing 
question: What does eternity actually look like? Like a triangle 
(as in the case of the Euphrates) or like an equation (as in the 
case of falling stones) or like something else? Answer: It may 
look anyway it likes; thanks to analytical geometry, it can 
always be reduced to equations. 

This could be the beginning of a technology of the soul’s 
second eye. All eternal forms, all immutable Ideas, can be 
formulated as equations, and these equations can be translated 
from the numerical code into computer codes and fed into 
computers. The computer for its part can display these algo¬ 
rithms as lines, areas and (a bit later on) volumes on the screen 
and in holograms, out of which it can create ‘numerically 
generated’ artificial images. What one then sees with the soul’s 


first eye is exactly what is perceived with the soul’s second eye. 
What appears on the computer screen are eternal, immutable 
forms (e.g. triangles) produced by eternal, immutable formu¬ 
lae (e.g. ‘1 + 1 = 2’). Paradoxically, these immutable forms can 
change: One can distort, twist, shrink and enlarge triangles. 
And everything that results from this is likewise an eternal, 
immutable form. The soul’s second eye continues to look into 
eternity, but this is now an eternity that it can manipulate. 

This is the designer’s way of seeing: He has a sort of pineal 
eye (partitioning just like a computer in fact) that enables him 
to perceive and control eternities. And he can give orders to a 
robot to translate into the here and now that which is 
perceived and manipulated in the eternal (for example, to dig 
canals or build rockets). In Mesopotamia, he was called a 
prophet. He is more deserving of the name of God. But thank 
God he is unaware of this and sees himself as a technician or 
artist. May God preserve him in this belief. 


The Factory 

The name that zoological taxonomy gives to our kind - homo 
sapiens sapiens- expresses the opinion that we are to be distin¬ 
guished from the kinds of hominid that preceded us by a 
double dose of wisdom. In light of what we have got up to, this 
is rather questionable. On the other hand, the name homo 
faber, being less zoological than anthropological, is also less 
ideological. It means that we belong to those kinds of anthro¬ 
poids who manufacture something. This is a functional term 
since it allows one to introduce the following criterion: 
Whenever we find any hominid anywhere in whose vicinity 
there is a working-floor, and whenever it is clear that a 
hominid has worked in this ‘factory’, then this hominid should 
be referred to as homo faber- i.e. a real human being. For 
example, there are remains of ape skeletons which make it 
clear that the stones in their vicinity were collected by them 
and were worked in a factory-like context. Despite any zoolog¬ 
ical doubts, such apes are homines fabri - i.e. should be 
referred to as real human beings. Thus ‘factory’ is the common 
human characteristic, what used to be referred to as human 
‘dignity’. By their factories ye shall know them. 

This is what prehistorians do and historians ought to do 
but do not always keep to: studying factories so as to identify 
the human being. In order to discover how Neolithic human 
beings lived, thought, felt, behaved and suffered, one can do no 
better than study pottery working-floors in detail. Everything, 
particularly the science, politics, art and religion of the society 
of the time, can be traced back to factory organization and the 
manufacture of pots. The same goes for all other periods. If, 
for example, a shoemaker’s workshop from fourteenth- 
century northern Italy is subjected to close examination, the 
roots of Humanism, the Reformation and the Renaissance can 
be understood more thoroughly than by studying the works of 


art and political, philosophical and theological texts. Because 
most of these works of art and texts were produced by monks, 
whereas the big revolutions of the fourteenth and fifteenth 
centuries originated in workshops and in the tensions 
contained within them. So anybody who wants to know about 
our past should concentrate on excavating the ruins of facto¬ 
ries. Anybody who wants to know about our present should 
concentrate on examining present-day factories critically. And 
anybody who addresses the issue of our future should raise the 
question of the factory of the future. 

If, then, one sees human history as the history of manufac¬ 
turing and everything else as mere footnotes, the following 
rough periods can be distinguished: hands, tools, machines, 
robots. Manufacturing means turning what is available in the 
environment to one’s own advantage, turning it into some¬ 
thing manufactured, turning it over to use and thus turning it 
to account. These turning movements are carried out initially 
by hands, then by tools, machines and, finally, robots. Because 
human hands, just like apes’ hands, are organs for turning 
(since the act of turning is genetically inherited information), 
then tools, machines and robots can be regarded as simula¬ 
tions of hands which extend one’s hands rather like prostheses 
and therefore enlarge the pool of inherited information by 
means of acquired, cultural information. Accordingly, facto¬ 
ries are places where what is available in the environment is 
turned into manufactures, and at the same time less and less 
inherited information and more and more acquired, learned 
information is introduced. These are places in which human 
beings become less and less natural and more and more artifi¬ 
cial, for the reason that the things turned into other things, the 
manufactures, strike back at the human being: A shoemaker 
not only makes leather shoes; he also makes a shoemaker out 
of himself. To make the same point a bit differently: Factories 
are places in which new kinds of human beings are always 
being produced: first the hand-man, then the tool-man, then 


the machine-man, and finally the robot-man. To repeat: This 
is the story of humankind. 

We find it difficult to reconstruct the first Industrial 
Revolution, the one from hand to tool, even though it is well 
documented by archaeological finds. One thing is certain 
about it: As soon as a tool - e.g. a hand-axe - is introduced, 
one can speak of a new form of human existence. A human 
being surrounded by tools, such as hand-axes, arrow-heads, 
needles, knives - in short, culture - is no longer at home in the 
environment in the way that primitive man using his hands is: 
He is alienated from the environment, and he is both 
protected and imprisoned by culture. 

The second Industrial Revolution, the one from tool to 
machine, is barely two hundred years old, and we are only just 
beginning to come to grips with it. Machines are tools that are 
designed and produced in accordance with scientific theory, 
and therefore they are more efficient, quicker to use and more 
expensive. Thus the relationship between human being and 
tool is reversed, and human existence changes. In the case of 
the tool, the human being is the constant and the tool is the 
variable: The shoemaker is seated in the middle of the work¬ 
shop, and when he breaks a needle he replaces it with another. 
In the case of the machine, it is the constant and the human 
being is the variable: The machine is situated in the middle of 
the workshop, and when the human being becomes old or ill, 
the owner of the machine replaces him with another. To all 
appearances, the owner of the machine, the manufacturer, is 
the constant and the machine his variable, but on closer 
inspection the manufacturer is also a variable of the machine 
or of the plant as a whole. The second Industrial Revolution 
has cast the human being out of his culture just as the first one 
cast him out of nature, and in this respect the machine factory 
can be regarded as a sort of madhouse. 

The third Industrial Revolution, the one from machine to 
robot, is now at issue. It is still very much under way, its end is 


not in sight, and so we ask: What will the factory of the future 
look like (the one our grandchildren will be familiar with)? 

The simple question about the actual meaning of the word 
robot brings difficulties with it. One possible answer might be: 
Machines are tools that are built according to scientific theory 
when science is understood as meaning chiefly physics and 
chemistry, and robots can additionally bring neurophysiologi¬ 
cal and biological theory and hypotheses into play. To express 
this in terms of the simulation of hands and bodies: Tools are 
empirical, machines are mechanical, and robots are neuro¬ 
physiological and biological. It is a question of‘turning’ more 
and more deceptively accurate simulations of genetic, inher¬ 
ited information into things. Because so far, robots provide the 
most accomplished way of turning things over to use. You can 
be certain that the factory of the future will be much more 
adaptable than those of today, and it will be sure to redefine 
the relationship between human being and tool in a totally 
new way. We can count on it being possible to overcome the 
crazy alienation of the human being from nature and culture 
such as it was at the height of the machine revolution. The 
factory of the future will cease to be a madhouse and will 
become a place in which the creative potential of homofaber 
will come into its own. 

This is above all a question of the relationship between 
human being and tool. It is therefore a question of topology 
or, if you like, architecture. As long as manufacturing takes 
place without tools - i.e. as long as homofaber acts directly 
upon nature, using his hands to turn things to his own advan¬ 
tage and turn things into something else - during all this time 
one cannot identify a locality for the factory; it has no ‘topos’. 
So-called primitive man working‘eoliths’ manufactures things 
everywhere and nowhere. As soon as tools are introduced, 
specialized factory areas can and must be cut out of the envi¬ 
ronment. Places, for example, where flint is hewn out of rock, 
and others where flint is turned into something else, so as to be 


turned over to use and turned to good use. These factory areas 
are circular features in the middle of which stands the human 
being from whom circles of tools radiate outwards, themselves 
encompassed within the circles of nature beyond. This factory 
architecture has been the norm for practically the whole of 
human history. With the invention of machines, this architec¬ 
ture has to change in the following way: 

Given that the machine has to be situated in the middle, 
due to the fact that it is more durable and more valuable in the 
manufacturing process than the human being is, human archi¬ 
tecture has to be subordinated to that of machines. At first in 
Western Europe and on the East Coast of America, then every¬ 
where, there come into being enormous concentrations of 
machines forming clusters in a network of interaction. The 
threads in the network, being ambivalent, can be organized 
centripetally or centrifugally. Along the centripetal threads, 
things relating to nature and human beings are sucked into 
machines so as to be turned over to use and turned to good 
use. Along the centrifugal threads, the things and human 
beings turned into something else flow out of the machines. 
The machines are linked within the network, forming machine 
complexes, and these in their turn are linked to form indus¬ 
trial plants, and in the network human settlements form those 
places from which human beings are sucked into factories, 
only to be sucked out periodically, spewed out again from 
there. The whole of nature is drawn into the circularity of this 
mechanical suction. This is the structure of factory architec¬ 
ture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

This structure will be changed fundamentally by robots. 
Not just because robots can be turned to more uses and so are 
basically smaller and cheaper than machines, but because they 
are not constant in relation to human beings. It becomes 
more and more apparent that the relationship between 
human being and robot is reversible and that they can only 
function together: the human being in effect as a function of 


the robot, and by the same token the robot as a function of 
the human being. The robot only does what the human being 
wants, but the human being can only want what the robot can 
do. A new method of manufacturing - i.e. of functioning - is 
coming into being: The human being is a functionary of 
robots that function as a function of him. This new human 
being, the functionary, is linked to robots by thousands of 
partly invisible threads: Wherever he goes, stands or lies, he 
carries the robots around with him (or is carried around by 
them), and whatever he does or suffers can be interpreted as a 
function of the robot. 

At first glance, it looks as though we are almost back to the 
pre-tool phase of manufacturing. Just like primitive man 
acting directly on nature using his hands and therefore manu¬ 
facturing all the time and everywhere, future functionaries 
equipped with tiny or even invisible robots will be engaged in 
manufacture all the time and everywhere. Thus not only will 
the giant industrial complexes of the machine age die out like 
the dinosaurs and at best be exhibited in historical museums; 
workshops too will become redundant. Thanks to robots, 
everyone will be linked to everyone else everywhere and all the 
time by reversible cable, and via these cables (as well as the 
robots) they will turn to use everything available to be turned 
into something and thus turned to account. 

Such a telematic, post-industrial, post-historical view of the 
future of homo faber has a catch, however. It is in fact the case 
that the more complex tools become, the more abstract their 
functions become. Primitive man using his hands could try 
and get by with concrete inherited information as to the use of 
the things available to be turned to his advantage. To make use 
of tools, the manufacturer of hand-axes, pots and shoes had to 
acquire this information empirically. Machines called not just 
for empirical information but for the acquisition of theoretical 
information as well, and this explains the need for universal 
education: elementary schools for learning how to use 


machines, secondary schools for learning how to maintain 
machines, and universities for learning how to build new 
machines. Robots call for a much more abstract learning 
process and the development of disciplines that have not been 
generally accessible up to now. Linking human beings up 
telematically to the network by means of robots and the conse¬ 
quent disappearance of the factory (to be more accurate: the 
becoming immaterial of the factory) presume that all human 
beings are competent enough for this. This competence 
should not be taken for granted. 

This provides a hint as to what factories of the future will 
look like: like schools in fact. They will have to be places where 
human beings can learn how robots function so that these 
robots can then relieve human beings of the task of turning 
nature into culture. In fact, the human beings of the future in 
the factories of the future will learn to do this by, with and 
from robots. Thus in the case of the factory of the future, we 
will have to think more in terms of scientific laboratories, art 
academies and libraries and collections of recordings than in 
terms of present-day factories. And we shall have to look upon 
the robot-man of the future more as an academic than as an 
artisan, worker or engineer. 

But this gives rise to a conceptual problem that forms the 
nub of these observations: The classical image of a factory is 
the opposite of a school: A ‘school’ is a place of contempla¬ 
tion, of leisure ( otium , schole), and a ‘factory’ is a place that 
has given up contemplation ( negotium , ascholia)-, a ‘school’ is 
something to look up to, and a ‘factory’ is something to look 
down on. Even the Romantic sons of the founders of industry 
shared this classical view. Now the basic error of the Platonists 
and the Romantics is becoming clear for all to see. As long as 
the school and the factory are in fact separated and look down 
on one another, industrial chaos is the rule. When, however, 
robots begin to oust machines, it becomes apparent that the 
factory is nothing but an applied school and the school 


nothing but a factory for the acquisition of information. And 
at this point, the term homo faber comes into its own for the 
first time. 

This allows one to formulate the question of the factory of 
the future in terms of topology and architecture. The factory 
will have to be the place in which human beings altogether will 
learn by means of robots: what, why and how to turn things to 
use. And the factory architects of the future will have to design 
schools. To put this in classical terms: academies, temples of 
wisdom. What these temples will look like, whether they will 
be down to earth in a material sense or up in the air in a semi¬ 
material sense or else in a largely immaterial sense, is beside 
the question. The only crucial thing is that the factory of the 
future will have to be the place where homo faber becomes 
homo sapiens sapiens because he has realized that manufac¬ 
turing means the same thing as learning - i.e. acquiring, 
producing and passing on information. 

This sounds at least as utopian as the telematic society 
linked to a network and using self-regulating robots. But in 
reality, it is nothing but a projection of tendencies that can 
already be observed. Such factory-schools and school-factories 
are coming into existence everywhere. 


The Lever Strikes Back 

Machines are simulated organs of the human body. The lever, 
for example, is an extended arm. It increases the ability of the 
arm to lift and ignores all the other functions the arm has. It is 
more ‘stupid’ than the arm, but it therefore reaches further and 
lifts heavier loads. 

Stone blades - made like carnassial teeth - are amongst the 
oldest machines. They are older than homo sapiens sapiens , 
and they can still tear today: because they are not in fact 
organic but made of stone. Paleolithic man probably also had 
living machines: jackals, for example, which he made use of in 
hunting as extended legs and carnassial teeth. As carnassial 
teeth, jackals are less stupid than stone blades; therefore stone 
blades are more durable. This may be one reason why both 
‘non-organic’ and organic machines were used right up to the 
Industrial Revolution: knives as well as jackals, levers as well as 
donkeys, shovels as well as slaves. So as to be able to make use 
of the durability of one as well as the intelligence of the other. 
But‘intelligent’ machines (jackals, donkeys and slaves) are 
structurally more complicated than ‘stupid’ ones. That is the 
reason why, since the Industrial Revolution, we have started to 
dispense with them. 

The industrial machine differs from a pre-industrial one in 
that it is based on a scientific theory. Of course, the pre-indus¬ 
trial lever has a gut feeling about the principle of the lever, but 
only with the industrial lever does it know what it is about. 
This is usually expressed in the following way: Pre-industrial 
machines are empirical; industrial ones are produced by tech¬ 
nology. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, science had a 
series of theories concerning the ‘non-organic’ world at its 
disposal - in particular, theories of mechanics. But when it 
came to the organic world, it had few ideas about theories. 
What kind of gut feeling a donkey might have had about laws 


was a mystery not only to the donkey but to the scientists as 
well. Thus, since the Industrial Revolution, the ox has given 
way to the locomotive and the horse to the aeroplane. The ox 
and the horse cannot be produced by technology. As far as 
slaves were concerned, it was a more complicated business. 
Technological machines became not only more and more 
efficient but bigger and more expensive as well. For this 
reason, the ‘Man/machine’ relationship was reversed, and Man 
did not use machines anymore but was used by them. He 
became a relatively intelligent slave of relatively stupid 

In our century, this has changed a bit. Theories have 
become more sophisticated, and thus machines have become 
more and more efficient and at the same time smaller and, 
above all, more ‘intelligent’. Slaves have become more and 
more superfluous and have sought refuge from machines in 
the service sector or have become unemployed. These are the 
familiar results of the automation and ‘robotization’ character¬ 
istic of what is happening in post-industrial society. But this is 
not the change that really matters. What is rather more impor¬ 
tant is the fact that theories are beginning to be available for 
possible application to the organic world as well. We are begin¬ 
ning to find out which laws govern the donkey’s gut feeling. So 
in the future, technology will be able to produce oxen, horses, 
slaves and super-slaves. This might be called the second or 
‘biological’ Industrial Revolution. 

At the same time, it will become apparent that the attempt 
to build ‘intelligent, non-organic’ machines is at best a 
makeshift, and at worst a mistake; a lever does not have to be a 
stupid arm if it is built into a central nervous system. The high 
level of intelligence of the ox can even be surpassed by loco¬ 
motives built fully in accordance with ‘biological’ principles. 
The durability of the ‘non-organic’ can be combined with the 
intelligence of the organic in the future construction of 
machines. Soon the place will be crawling with stone jackals. 


But this is not necessarily an ideal situation: to be crawling 
with stone jackals, oxen, slaves and super-slaves at the same 
time as we are trying to eat and digest the industrial by-prod¬ 
ucts poured out by them. This cannot be allowed. Not only, in 
fact, because these ‘stone intelligences’ are becoming increas¬ 
ingly more intelligent and therefore not stupid enough to 
serve us. This cannot be because machines already strike back 
at us even when they are stupid. How much more will they 
strike back when they have become smarter? 

The old lever is striking back at us: We have been moving 
our arms as though they were levers since we have had levers. 
We simulate that which we have simulated. Since we have been 
pastoralists we have behaved like herds of sheep and have 
needed pastors. This striking back on the part of machines is 
now becoming clear for all to see: young people dancing like 
robots, politicians making decisions based on computerized 
scenarios, scientists thinking digitally, and artists using plot¬ 
ters. Consequently, the fact that the lever is striking back will 
have to be taken into account in the future construction of 
machines. It is not enough simply to take the economy and 
ecology into consideration in the construction of machines. 
We will have to think about the ways in which such machines 
may strike back at us. A difficult thing to do considering that 
most machines nowadays are made by ‘intelligent machines’ 
and that we ourselves only look on from the side-lines, as it 
were, intervening only occasionally. 

This is a problem of design: What should machines be like if 
their striking back is not to cause us pain? Or, better still: if it is 
to do us some good? What should the stone jackals be like if 
they are not to tear us apart and if we ourselves are not to 
behave like jackals? Naturally, we can design them in such a 
way that they lick us instead of biting us. But do we really want 
to be licked? These are difficult questions because nobody 
really knows what they want to be like. However, these issues 
need to be addressed before one can start to design stone 


jackals (or mollusc clones or bacterial chimeras for that 
matter). And these issues are more interesting than future 
stone jackals and supermen. Are designers ready to address 


Shelters, Screens and Tents 

We are admittedly surrounded by a lot of stupid objects, but 
when it comes to shelter, umbrellas must be among the most 
stupid. Umbrellas (what Germans call Regenschirme- i.e. rain 
screens) are relatively complicated contraptions which refuse to 
work just when they are needed (when it is windy, for instance); 
they give inadequate protection, are inconvenient to carry 
around and generally threaten to poke other people’s eyes out if 
they are not equipped with umbrellas too. Quite apart from the 
fact that umbrellas get left behind and taken by mistake. There 
are admittedly fashions in shelter, but in fact there have been no 
technical advances since the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, when 
the Bible says ‘The Eternal God is thy refuge,’ it is being blasphe¬ 
mous comparing God with such things. 

When you see the speed and convenience with which giant 
circus tents are put up and taken down, you might think that 
we have not done too badly as regards shelter: It is not people’s 
fault if they do not know how to do it properly, and they will 
soon learn to do it when they go camping. But when you 
consider parachutes (what Germans call Fallschirme- i.e. fall 
screens), you return to your original opinion regarding the 
stupidity of shelters. There you are jumping out of an aero¬ 
plane and the wind automatically opens the ’chute. But as soon 
as you are down on the ground, you have the devil of a job fold¬ 
ing the ’chute up again. This illustrates what is so outrageously 
stupid about shelters, and about tents in general (tents being 
perhaps the very essence of shelter): Since the ancient 
Egyptians, architects (and tent designers in general) have not 
tumbled to the fact that they are dealing with the wind and not 
with gravity. The fact that the danger with shelters such as tents 
is not their falling down but their being swept all over the place 
by the wind. This will change. People will learn to think more 
‘immaterially’ as soon as walls have been torn down. 


If we again try and give expression to the tent’s essential 
nature: It is a sort of protective covering providing a refuge 
that can be put up in the wind, used against the wind and then 
folded up again in the wind. Faced by such a description of the 
essential nature of the tent, who would not be reminded of 
sails? And in fact, the sail is precisely the form of tent that 
brings the wind under control for once. The tent as a shelter 
tries to resist the wind, but the tent as a sail tries to exploit the 
wind’s power. The sail is as smart as the shelter is stupid: A 
properly built sailing-ship can almost sail against the wind and 
is only ever helpless when there is no wind. And a glider can 
manipulate the wind not only horizontally but also vertically. 
Thus designers of the future will have to think of their designs 
by analogy not with umbrellas but with kites made to dance in 
the wind by children. Cracking the problem of the essential 
nature of the tent reveals parachutes and gliders to be just two 
of many variations on the theme of a tent. Because this solu¬ 
tion recognizes in the tent a screen that is blown by the wind. 

A screen wall is to a solid wall as being blown by the wind is to 
forming a wind-break: This is not a bad place to start an analy¬ 
sis of the cultural change bearing down upon us. Before going 
into the problem of walls, however, one must think about the 
wind, and this leads one into familiar territory. For example, 
the fact that one can, it is true, hear the wind (it often roars 
deafeningly), that one can feel it (it can knock one over), 
but that one cannot see the thing itself, only the often horren¬ 
dous consequences of its passing. As soon as one goes from 
solid walls to screen walls, everything seems to become more 

A screen wall - whether it is anchored into the ground as in 
the case of a circus tent, opened up at the end of a stick as in 
the case of an umbrella, floats in the air as in the case of a 
parachute or kite, flaps on a mast as in the case of a sailing- 
ship or flag - is a wind wall. A solid wall, on the other hand, in 
whatever form it takes and no matter how many windows and 


doors it possesses, is a rock wall. Thus a house, like the cave 
from which it derives, is a dark secret (like that ‘secret place of 
the heart’, a home), and a tent, like a nest in a tree, of which it 
is a descendant, is a place where people assemble and disperse, 
a calming of the wind. In a house, things are possessed; it is 
property, and this property is defined by walls. In a tent, things 
are experienced; it assembles experience, and this experience is 
subdivided and diversified by means of the tent wall. The fact 
that the tent wall is woven - i.e. a network - and that experi¬ 
ences are processed on this network is contained within the 
word screen. It is a piece of cloth that is open to experiences 
(open to the wind, open to the spirit) and that stores this expe¬ 
rience. Since ancient times, the screen wall has stored images 
in the form of carpets; since the invention of oil painting in 
the form of exhibited pictures; since the invention of film in 
the form of projected pictures, since the invention of televi¬ 
sion, it has acted as a screen for electromagnetically networked 
images; and since the invention of computer plotters, the tent 
wall, now in an immaterial form, has made possible the subdi¬ 
vision and diversification of images thanks to the processing of 
its network. The screen wall blowing in the wind assembles 
experience, processes it and disseminates it, and it is to be 
thanked for the fact that the tent is a creative nest. 


Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles 

An ‘object’ is what gets in the way, a problem thrown in your 
path like a projectile (coming as it does from the Latin ob- 
iectum, Greek problema). The world is objective, substantial, 
problematic as long as it obstructs. An ‘object of use’ is an 
object which one uses and needs to get other objects out of the 
way. This definition contains within it a contradiction: an 
obstacle for/to the removal of obstacles? This contradiction is 
what is called the ‘internal dialectic of culture’ (if by ‘culture’ 
we mean the totality of all objects of use). This dialectic can be 
summed up as follows: I come across obstacles in my path 
(come across the objective, substantial, problematic world); I 
overturn some of these obstacles (transform them into objects 
of use, into culture) in order to continue, and the objects thus 
overturned prove to be obstacles in themselves. The more I 
continue, the more I am obstructed by objects of use (more in 
the form of cars and administrative machinery than in the 
form of hailstones and man-eating tigers). And I am in fact 
doubly obstructed: first, because I use them in order to 
continue, and second, because they get in my way. To put it 
another way: The more I continue, the more objective, 
substantial and problematic culture becomes. 

This by way of an introduction - to the state of things as it 
were. In the case of objects of use, it is therefore possible to ask 
how and why these projectiles have been thrown into one’s 
path. (In the case of other objects, such a question is point¬ 
less.) And the answer to the question is: They were projected as 
designs on the part of people who went before. They are 
projected designs that I need in order to continue and that 
obstruct me from continuing. In an attempt to break out of 
this vicious circle, I project designs myself: I myself throw 
objects of use into the path of other people. What form must I 
give these projected designs so that those coming after me can 


use them to help them to continue and at the same time avoid 
being obstructed as much as possible? This is both a political 
and an aesthetic question and forms the central concern when 
it comes to creating things. 

The question can also be formulated along different lines. 

In the case of objects of use, I come across designs projected by 
other people. (In the case of other objects, I come across some¬ 
thing different, perhaps something quite Other.) Objects of 
use are therefore mediations (media) between myself and 
other people, not just objects. They are not just objective but 
inter-subjective as well, not just problematic but dialogic as 
well. The question about creating things can also be formu¬ 
lated in this way: Can I give form to my projected designs in 
such a way that the communicative, the inter-subjective, the 
dialogic are more strongly emphasized than the objective, the 
substantial and the problematic? 

When it comes to creating things, one is faced with the 
question of responsibility (and thus with freedom). Faced with 
freedom, naturally. Whoever projects designs for objects of use 
(whoever produces culture) throws obstacles in other people’s 
way, and nothing can be done about this (not even for exam¬ 
ple one’s intention to promote emancipation). But the fact 
must be borne in mind that when it comes to creating things, 
one is faced with the question of responsibility, and this is 
what makes it possible to talk of freedom in relation to culture 
in the first place. Responsibility is the decision to answer for 
things to other people. It is openness to other people. If I 
decide to answer for something in creating my design, then in 
the object of use designed by me I emphasize the inter-subjec¬ 
tive and not the objective. And the more I direct attention 
towards the object in the creation of my design (the more irre¬ 
sponsibly I design it), the more the object will obstruct those 
coming after me, and the area for manoeuvre in the culture 
will shrink. A glance at the current situation of culture is 
evidence of this: It is characterized by objects of use whose 


designs were created irresponsibly, with attention directed 
towards the object. This is almost inevitable in the current 
situation (and has been since the Renaissance at least). At least 
since that time, those doing the designing have been people 
who have projected their designs onto objects so as to produce 
more and more useful objects of use. The objects resist these 
designs. This opposition seizes the attention of those creating 
the designs, making it possible for them to penetrate more and 
more deeply into the objective, substantial, problematic world, 
to become more and more familiar with it and to master it. 
This makes scientific and technical progress possible. This 
progress has such a hold that those creating designs mean¬ 
while forget that other progress, progress in the approach to 
other people. Scientific and technical progress has such a hold 
that any act of creating designs responsibly is thought to be a 
backward step. The current situation of culture is as it is 
precisely because creating designs responsibly is thought to be 

The prophets called this hold over us on the part of the 
objective world ‘pagan, and objects of use that have a hold 
over people as objects they called ‘idols’. From their perspec¬ 
tive, the current situation of culture is characterized by idola¬ 
try. There are, however, indications that this attitude towards 
creating designs is starting to change. Such that designs are 
becoming less and less ‘pagan’ and more and more ‘prophetic’. 
In fact, one is starting to free the term object from the term 
material and to design immaterial objects of use such as 
computer programs and communications networks. This is 
not to say that an ‘immaterial culture’ beginning to grow in 
this way would be less obstructive: It probably restricts free¬ 
dom even more than the material one. But in creating such 
immaterial designs, the point of view of those creating the 
designs is, as it were, spontaneously directed towards other 
people. It is instructed by the immaterial itself about how to 
create designs responsibly. Immaterial objects of use are idols 


(and thus worshipped), but they are transparent idols and 
make it possible for other people to see what is going on 
behind the scenes. Their mediated, inter-subjective, dialogic 
side is visible. 

This is of course not enough of a reason to hope for a more 
responsible culture in the future. But there is an additional 
point to mention that may justify such optimism. Objects of use 
are after all obstructions that I need in order to progress, and 
the more I need them, the more I use them up. Used objects of 
use are those for which the design projecting them into one’s 
path has been obliterated. They have lost the form projected 
upon them by design; they are de-formed and thrown away. 

This can be traced back to the second law of thermodynamics, 
which states that all material tends to lose its form (its in¬ 
formation) . This principle does not hold any less well (if less 
impressively) in the case of immaterial objects of use: They too 
are on the road to entropy. We are beginning to become 
conscious of the temporal nature of all forms (and thus of all 
creation). Since entropy is beginning to obstruct us at least as 
much as objects of use are. The question of responsibility and 
freedom (this being the essential question of creation) arises 
not only in the process of designing but also in the process of 
throwing away objects of use. It may be that consciousness of 
the temporality of all creation (even that of immaterial designs) 
will contribute to a future situation in which things will be 
designed a bit more responsibly, resulting in a culture with less 
and less room for objects of use to act as obstacles and more and 
more room for them to serve as vehicles for interpersonal 
contact. A culture with a bit more freedom. 


Why Do Typewriters Go ‘Click’? 

The explanation is simple: Clicking is more easily mechanized 
than sliding. Machines are stutterers even if they appear to 
slide. This becomes clear when cars and film projectors start to 
go wrong. But this explanation is inadequate. Because what lies 
behind the question is: Why do machines stutter? The answer 
is: Because everything there is in the world (and the whole 
world itself) stutters. This only becomes clear when one takes a 
closer look. Democritus already suspected it, but not until 
Planck was anyone able to prove it: Everything quantizes. Thus 
numbers, but not letters, correspond to the world. It is open to 
calculation but not to description. Therefore, numbers have to 
break out of the alphanumeric code and make themselves inde¬ 
pendent. Letters entice one into endless discussion about the 
world and have to be put to one side as not equal to the task. 
This is precisely what is happening. Numbers abandon the 
alphanumeric code in favour of new codes (the digital code, for 
example) and they feed computers. Letters (if they want to 
survive) have to simulate numbers. This is why typewriters go 

A few things need to be said here. For example, the fact that 
everything in the world stutters has only become apparent 
since people have started to count everything. In order to count 
it, everything has been split up into little bits (‘calculi’), and 
then a number has been attached to every little bit. Perhaps, 
then, the fact that the world is a scattering of particles is a 
consequence of our counting? Not so much a discovery then, 
more an invention? Do we discover in the world what we have 
fed into it ourselves? Perhaps the world is only open to calcula¬ 
tion because we cobbled it together in our calculations. It is not 
numbers that correspond to the world: We have set the world 
up in such a way that it corresponds to our number code. These 
are rather unsettling thoughts. 


They are unsettling for the simple reason that they lead to 
the following conclusion: The world is now a scattering of 
particles because that is how we cobbled it together in doing 
our calculations. Before that, however (at least since the Greek 
philosophers), the world was described alphabetically. 
Therefore, at that time it had to adhere to the discipline 
imposed by the rules of discourse - i.e. the rules of logic rather 
than the rules of mathematics. In fact, Hegel was still of the 
opinion, apparently mad to us now, that everything in the 
world was logical. We are now of the opposite opinion: 
Everything in the world can be traced back to absurd chance 
events that can be worked out by the calculus of probability. 
Hegel was thinking in words (in ‘dialectic’ discourse), whereas 
we think in calculations (we process punctuated data). 

The whole thing gets still more unsettling when one 
considers that Russell and Whitehead proved in Principia 
Mathematica that the rules of logic cannot entirely be traced 
back to the rules of mathematics. As is well known, these two 
men tried to manipulate logical thinking by using mathemat¬ 
ics (the ‘calculus of propositions’) and came up against this 
irreducibility. Thus it is not possible to build a really proper 
bridge between the world of description (Hegel’s world, for 
example) and the world of calculation (Planck’s world, for 
example). Since we have applied the methodology of calcula¬ 
tion to the world (i.e. at least since Descartes’ analytical geom¬ 
etry), the structure of the world has changed beyond all 
recognition. News of this has got around slowly. 

This may tempt us to conclude that it is up to us how the 
world is structured. If we wish to write a description of it, then 
it has all the appearance of logical discourse, and if we prefer 
to calculate, then it has the appearance of a scattering of parti¬ 
cles. This would be jumping to conclusions, though. Only 
since we have calculated have we had machines (typewriters, 
for example), and we could not live without machines, even if 
we wanted to. We are therefore forced to calculate rather than 


to write, and if we insist on writing, then we have to go ‘click’. 

To all appearances, it seems as if the world had in fact to be 
cobbled together for the purposes of calculation but that the 
world itself demanded that it be cobbled together. 

At this point in the brain teaser, it is a good idea to hold our 
horses a bit. Otherwise, one runs the risk of falling into an 
abyss (into the realm of religion). To avoid falling like this into 
a Pythagorean worship of numbers, it is necessary to examine 
the movements one makes while calculating, as opposed to 
those one makes while writing. In the days when one still 
wrote by hand, one made a line going from left to right ( that 
is, if one lived in the West) that wound its way from one side of 
the paper to the other with occasional breaks. This was a linear 
movement. When one calculates, one picks little bits out of a 
large heap and assembles them in little heaps. This is a punctu¬ 
ated movement. First, one calculates (picks out) and then one 
computes (assembles). One analyzes in order to synthesize. 
This is the radical difference between writing and calculation: 
Calculation is directed towards synthesis, but writing is not. 

People who subscribe to the cause of writing try to deny 
this. In calculation, all they see is the doing of sums, and this 
they call cold and unemotional. This is a downright mischie¬ 
vous misunderstanding. What calculation is all about is 
computing cold sums into new things that have never existed 
before. This white heat of creativity is closed to people who do 
not go in for calculation as long as they see calculation merely 
as a question of numbers. They are unable to experience the 
beauty and philosophical depth of some outstanding equa¬ 
tions (Einstein’s, for example). But now that one can re-code 
numbers in the form of colours, shapes and sounds with the 
aid of computers, the beauty and depth of calculation are there 
for all to feel. One can see its creative force on computer 
screens, hear it in the form of synthesized music, and in future 
one will probably be able to experience it ‘hands on’ through 
the use of holograms. The exciting thing about calculation is 


not that it cobbles the world together (writing can do this as 
well), but that it is capable of projecting other worlds from 
within itself for all to feel. 

There is not much point in pouring scorn on these synthet¬ 
ically projected worlds for being simulations of the actual 
world, for being fictions. These worlds are concentrations of 
dots, computations of sums. But the same goes for the ‘actual’ 
world we are thrown into. It too is computed by our nervous 
system calculating on the basis of punctuated stimuli, and this 
is then perceived as actual. Thus either the projected worlds 
are just as actual as the ‘actual’ world (if they assemble the dots 
in the same concentration as the ‘actual’ one), or the ‘actually’ 
perceived world is just as much a fiction as the ones projected. 
What the cultural revolution now under way is all about is that 
we have gained the ability to set alternative worlds alongside 
the one taken by us as given. That we are going from being the 
subjects of a single world to becoming the projections of many 
worlds. That we have started to learn how to calculate. 

Omar Khayyam says: ‘Ah love! Could you and I with fate 
conspire/To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,/Would 
not we shatter it to bits - and then/Re-mould it nearer to the 
heart’s desire?’ People are starting to see that we are in the 
process of shattering the sorry scheme of things entirely to 
bits. Not, however, so that we can re-code it just as our heart 
desires. People should at last learn how to do arithmetic. 


The Ethics of Industrial Design? 

Not so long ago, this would have been an unnecessary ques¬ 
tion. The morality of things? The designer used to have the 
production of useful objects at the forefront of his mind. 
Knives, for example, had to be designed in such a way that they 
were able to cut through something well - including enemy 
throats. Over and above this, a design that was to be of use had 
to be accurate - in the sense that it was in accord with scientific 
facts. It had to look good - in the sense that it was able to 
provide the person who used it with an experience. The 
designer’s ideal was pragmatic - i.e. functional. Moral, indeed 
political, considerations hardly came into it. Moral norms were 
decided by the public - either in the form of a superhuman 
authority, or by means of consensus, or both. And designers, 
along with those who used products, were subject to the same 
norms under threat of punishment - in this life or the next. 

The question of the morality of things, of the moral and 
political responsibility of the designer, has, however, taken on 
a new significance (indeed an urgency) in the contemporary 
situation. There are at least three reasons for this: 

First, there is no such thing as a public laying down norms 
any more. Even though there are still authorities (religious, 
political and moral) just as there were before, their rules can 
no longer claim people’s trust; their competence in respect to 
industrial production is in doubt. Consequently, authorities 
have less and less credibility, not least because the communica¬ 
tions revolution has destroyed the public sphere we had 
known hitherto. Their competence is questioned since indus¬ 
trial production has become extremely complicated and 
norms of any kind tend to be deceptively simple. Having thus 
become incompetent, every authoritarian generalization of 
norms tends to inhibit industrial progress or cause disorgani¬ 
zation more than it provides a direction for people to follow. 


The only authority that seems to be more or less intact is 
science. Of course, it always claims to be engaged in value-free 
research, and as a result it does provide technical norms but 
not moral norms. 

Second, industrial production, including design, has devel¬ 
oped into a complex network that makes use of information 
from various sources. The mass of information available to a 
producer goes way beyond the capacity of individual memory. 
Even if one uses artificial storage mechanisms, one is stuck 
with the problem of deciding which information is to be 
selected for further processing. Consequently, it has become 
necessary to act in teams combining human and artificial 
components; results cannot therefore be attributed to any 
single author. The design process is organized on an extremely 
co-operative basis. For this reason, no one person can be held 
responsible for a product anymore. Even if there were authori¬ 
ties creating norms, nobody would feel personally bound to 
them. The lack of moral responsibility that follows logically 
from the production process must inevitably also come up 
with morally objectionable products in the event of a failure 
to agree on what sort of ethical code is to be followed for 

Third, in the past it was tacitly agreed that the moral 
responsibility for a product lay with the person who used it. If 
someone stabbed someone else with a knife, he carried sole 
responsibility, not the knife’s designer. Here the production of 
knives was a sort of pre-ethical, value-free activity. This is no 
longer the case, however. Many industrial processes are carried 
out by automated machines, and it would be absurd to hold 
robots responsible for the use to which products are put. 

Whom should one hold responsible for a robot killing 
somebody? The person who constructed the robot, the one 
who made the knife or the one who set up the computer 
program? Would it not equally be possible to attribute moral 
responsibility to an error in construction, programming or 


production? And what about attributing moral responsibility 
to the branch of industry that produced the robot? Or perhaps 
the whole industrial complex, extending to the whole system 
to which this complex belongs? 

In other words: A situation in which designers do not 
address themselves to these questions can lead to a total lack of 
responsibility. This is not a new problem, of course. It became 
terrifyingly apparent in 1945 when it was a question of deciding 
who was to be held responsible for the crimes against human¬ 
ity committed by the Nazis. At the time of the Nuremberg 
trials, a letter written by a German industrialist to a Nazi offi¬ 
cial was discovered. In it, the industrialist timidly begs to be 
forgiven for having constructed his gas ovens badly: Instead of 
killing thousands of people at one go, only hundreds were 
being killed. The Nuremberg trials and, a bit later, the 
Eichmann trial clearly demonstrated that a) there are no longer 
norms that are applicable to industrial production; b) there is 
no such thing as a single author of a crime; and c) responsibil¬ 
ity has been so watered down that in effect we find ourselves in 
a situation of total irresponsibility towards acts resulting from 
industrial production. 

Recently, the Gulf War provided an even clearer illustration 
of this kind of problem, though on a less absurdly inhuman 
level than in the case of the Nazis. The death toll was in the 
region of one Allied soldier to a thousand Iraqis. This statistic 
was achieved by means of state-of-the-art industrial design. 
Design that was impressive in its efficiency, scientific accuracy 
and, no doubt, aesthetic achievement. Is talk of ethical or 
moral (let alone political) responsibility of any relevance here? 
Think of the image of a pilot leaving his helicopter after an air 
attack and going immediately to talk to a television reporter. 
He has still got his helmet on. When he turns towards the 
reporter, the guns on board his helicopter are pointing in the 
same direction. His helmet is synchronized with the guns; the 
go-ahead for an attack can be given by the blink of an eye. 


Now who is responsible for this post-industrial helicopter- 
pilot complex, and who is responsible for what happens as a 
result of such an interwoven network of relationships? Can 
one imagine an authority capable of judging what happens - 
would this authority be a judge, a priest, a national or interna¬ 
tional parliament, a committee of engineers or experts on the 
analysis of complex systems? 

If we do not manage - by going beyond ideology - to find a 
way of approaching a solution to the ethical problems of 
design, then Nazism, the Gulf War and similar events will go 
down in history as merely the opening stages of a period of 
destruction and self-destruction. The fact that we are begin¬ 
ning to wonder about such questions gives reason for hope. 


Design as Theology 

In the nineteenth century, people were of the opinion that 
West is West, East is East, and never the twain shall meet. This 
view was based on profound insight, since for the West the 
most terrible thing is Death, and for the East the most terrible 
thing is Life. In the West, one has to die (these are the wages of 
sin), and in the East one has to be born over and over again 
(this is punishment for crimes committed). ‘Salvation’ for the 
West is the overcoming of Death; for the East it is the over¬ 
coming of rebirth. Christ promises eternal life, Buddha libera¬ 
tion from life. In other words: In the West, one does not want 
to die but one has to, and in the East, one does not want to live 
(because this is seen as suffering) but one has to be born again. 
An unbridgeable gap appears to yawn between these two 
worlds. But when one holds a piece of Japanese equipment 
(for example, a pocket radio) in one’s hand, then one feels the 
yawning gap beginning to close. 

Nothing is easier than to trivialize this (up to now) unique 
event. The pocket radio is a product of Western applied 
science, and its design is Japanese. There have always been 
things like this. For example, Chinese porcelain was produced 
following English designs. Oriental cultural elements were 
probably already known in the Roman Empire, and by the 
same token Hellenistic ones were probably known in China. 
Not to mention Mongol dragons on Gothic cathedrals and 
gods’ helmets from the time of Alexander at Angkor Wat. 
Design does not develop according to function but follows 
traders in their ships or on Silk Roads. One does not have to 
call on Christ or Buddha to understand the Japanese pocket 
radio. One only needs to think of the opening up of Japanese 
harbours by the American fleet or Japanese industrial espi¬ 
onage in Europe and America between the world wars. Then 
again, as soon as one starts to trivialize the situation like this, 


one feels the phenomenon one is trying to explain slipping 
through one’s fingers. Is it that the Toyotas on German 
Autobahns are to be likened not to Fiats but to the Golden 

The Japanese pocket radio does not force Western applied 
science into an Oriental form; rather it is a synthesis within 
which both overlap. This is, when one comes to think of it, an 
extraordinary claim. Western science comes about thanks to 
the detachment made possible by theory, as when one takes up 
a critical and sceptical attitude towards the world of phenom¬ 
ena. The form of things Oriental comes about thanks to very 
specific and concrete experience, causing the distinction 
between the human being and the world to blur. The yawning 
gulf that was mentioned before opens up between scientific 
theories and the concrete experience of an inseparable unity. 
Then again, has the pocket radio managed to synthesize both 
of them? Has it managed to combine botany and ikebana, 
ballistics and archery, chess and the Japanese game Go into a 
new unity? Because the above argument leads to a claim that, 
in the case of the pocket radio, Japanese design was not simply 
imposed on a radio but arose out of it. 

Perhaps one can approach this problem (a decisive one for 
the future) by trying to set the Western concept of design 
against Oriental notions. As far as we are concerned, design is 
often seen as the imposition of a form onto a formless mass. 
The form ( eideia ) is conceivable on the theoretical level: For 
example, one conceives in theory that a triangle is a form the 
sum of whose angles is 180 degrees. Now one takes what one 
has conceived in theory, imposes it upon something formless, 
and one has ‘designed’ (formed), for instance, a pyramid. Of 
course, one has to take on board the fact that the sum of the 
angles in something produced in this way is no longer exactly 
180 degrees. No design can be ‘perfect’, can be completely iden¬ 
tical with its model as conceived in theory. This is our own 
design problem, certainly not one as far as the Far East is 


concerned. We can observe how forms such as written charac¬ 
ters or paper flowers or simply the form of the tea ceremony 
arise in the hands of Oriental people. In this case, it is not a 
matter of imposing an idea on something amorphous. It is 
rather a matter of allowing a unifying form to arise out of 
oneself and the surrounding world. Design then - in the Far 
Eastern sense - is a kind of immersion in the Not-Self (for 
example, in paper, the paint-brush or paint) which defines the 
form of the Self in the first place (for example, in the form of a 
written character). 

Whereas in the West, therefore, design produces people 
who engage with the world, in the East it is the way in which 
people spring up out of the world so as to experience it. If one 
takes the word aesthetic in its original sense (i.e. ‘open to expe¬ 
rience’), then in the East design is purely aesthetic. 

Now it is not, of course, as if in the case of the pocket radio 
the Japanese designer has arisen out of the world in some sort 
of unio mystica with plastic material and copper wire. No 
more than, in the case of a Western pocket radio, the designer 
engages with the world from a theoretical perspective so as to 
give it form. Rather, both designers, the Eastern and the 
Western, are mindful, in the act of creation, of the market for, 
and function of, the object they are creating. But one must not 
be fooled by this apparent similarity. The Japanese designer 
comes out of a cultural context in which life is characterized 
by the Buddha - the ‘Enlightened One’ - and this can be seen 
reflected in his design: the bonsai trees and sliding doors, the 
sandals and the pocket radio, the Walkman and, in future, 
electronic and genetic robots and artificial intelligence. The 
design of all of these expresses the peculiar aesthetic quality of 
a blending in with the environment, a disintegration of the 
self. An eye trained in phenomenology would not be able to 
avoid seeing this in a pocket radio, a Toyota and a camera any 
more than it would in Japanese (and, for that matter, other 
Oriental) food. 


This is an extraordinary claim for the following reason: 
Science and the technology based upon it could only arise on 
Western soil. They presuppose the detachment made possible 
by theory, but also the Jewish conviction that one must change 
the world so as to change oneself. Science is basically a method 
of discovering the Judeo-Christian God ‘behind phenomena’, 
and technology a method of producing God’s kingdom on 
earth. As soon as one translates science and technology into 
Oriental design, they both have to change their nature. 

This fateful change is already underway, even if we do not 
always register the fact. What is produced by Japanese labora¬ 
tories is no longer the same sort of science as that which led to 
the Industrial Revolution, as it expresses a totally different 
‘spirit’. The industrial products made in Japan that are flooding 
the world do not breathe the same atmosphere as that breathed 
by the Industrial Revolution since the Enlightenment. And this 
will become even more apparent when China starts to become 
productively engaged in scientific and technological develop¬ 
ment. It is as though the motivation that originally created 
science and technology has done a U-turn. One way of looking 
at this fundamental U-turn is as follows: 

The science we know takes place in the form of logical 
discourse, and this discourse is alphanumerically (en)coded. 

In other words, science describes and calculates nature accord¬ 
ing to the rules of linear writing and thought. The motivation 
of science is to seize hold of nature so described and calcu¬ 
lated, in order to empower knowledge. In the Far East, there is 
no code that could be structurally compared to the alphanu¬ 
meric. There, science and technology are only conceivable in 
English and in our numbering system. But now the alphanu¬ 
meric code is being replaced by digital computer codes. These 
new codes have more in common with Oriental codes (e.g. 
ideograms) than with linear ones. So now science and technol¬ 
ogy are just as conceivable in the Far East as in the West. There 
is now another motivation behind them. 


Seen from the West, what is taking place can be interpreted 
as a disintegration of the basic structures of Western culture. 
Products flooding in from the East come designed in such a 
way that, in the form of every one of them, we get a concrete 
experience of the Oriental life-style. From the shape of the 
Japanese pocket radio, we gain a concrete (‘aesthetic’) famil¬ 
iarity with the Buddhist or Taoist or Shinto approach to life. 

We experience the extent to which our way of thinking, which 
has led among other things to science and technology (but 
also to other, more frightening things), is being absorbed into 
the Oriental one. Much more than the various sects taking the 
Orient as their model that have sprung up particularly in 
America, it is the design of Oriental industrial products that is 
pulling the ground of Judeo-Christianity from under our feet 
and immersing us in the East. Seen from an Eastern perspec¬ 
tive, the same thing probably seems to be happening in 
reverse. The advent of Western science and technology is no 
doubt interpreted as a disintegration of the Oriental life-style, 
and this becomes plain as soon as one compares the design of 
pocket radios with that of a kimono or of samurai swords. 

Seen from a ‘more objective’ perspective, it is perhaps a 
blurring of East and West that one is talking about nowadays. 
Perhaps this mutual subversion is expressed in the design of 
post-industrial (‘post-modern’?) products. But the nineteenth 
century was right after all in considering that a blending of 
Buddha into Christ or vice versa was impossible. The God of 
one is the Devil of the other. Perhaps a reduction to the lowest 
common denominator is taking place, a mutual destruction of 

In this matter, it is necessary to put sincerity above a feeling 
for justice that reduces everything to the same level. There are, 
after all, only two peaks in human civilization: the Oriental 
one and our own. All the others are either overlaps between 
these two (India, for example) or the first steps in the direction 
of forms that have never been developed before. If, as appears 


to be the case, the translation of Western science and technol¬ 
ogy to the Far East leads to a blurring of the two cultures, it is 
in fact ‘mass culture’ that one is talking about, a culture that 
finds its aesthetic expression in trashy design. But the meeting 
of East and West just getting underway can be seen in a differ¬ 
ent light. What if a new feeling for existence were to be finding 
expression in the design of post-industrial products? 

At the beginning of this essay, it was suggested that the 
fundamental difference between East and West was their atti¬ 
tude to life and death. From the Western attitude there arose 
Greek philosophy, Jewish prophesy and hence Christianity, 
science and technology. From the Eastern attitude there arose 
an aesthetic and pragmatic approach to life that we Westerners 
have never been able to understand completely. Now, these two 
mutually exclusive attitudes can, indeed must, blend into one 
another. They have already produced various new codes 
(computer codes) that bridge the gap. Out of their amalgama¬ 
tion are produced a science and technology that can no longer 
be classified, their products being designed in a spirit that no 
longer fits the old categories. Shouldn’t this sort of design 
perhaps be subjected to a‘theological’ analysis to find out 
whether its attitude to life and death is moving onto a new 
plane? Is it that such design expresses a‘transcended’ Judeo- 
Christianity and a ‘transcended’ Buddhism for which we still 
lack words? This is a bold hypothesis. But whenever one takes a 
Japanese pocket radio in one’s hand and looks closely into its 
design, the hypothesis does not look all that speculative after 
all; on the contrary, its time has come. To indicate as much has 
been the aim of this essay, though admittedly, what is being 
suggested must be taken as provisional. Its intention is to be an 
essay- i.e. an attempt at a hypothesis. 


Wittgenstein’s Architecture 

The universe of texts can be seen as a landscape. In it one can 
make out mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, castles, 
farmyards and inner-city slums. On the horizon of the scene 
visualized in this way, the Bible and Homer appear as gigantic 
ice-covered mountains. The vast, tranquil lake of Aristotle’s 
texts, where fishermen idly throw their nets and philologists 
row their boats, occupies a part of the valley bottom. There, 
the tumbling waterfall of Nietzsche is captured by the broad 
river of modern pragmatism. Towering above everything, the 
Gothic cathedral of St Thomas Aquinas’s Summae dominates 
the cathedral square of the city, in which the roofs and gables 
of Baroque speculations jostle one another. In the suburbs of 
this city, one catches sight of the Romantic, Realist and 
Modernist housing-blocks and factories of more recent litera¬ 
ture; somewhat apart from all these stands a small, apparently 
insignificant house resembling scaffolding more than a 
finished building: Wittgenstein’s building. 

This little house is called the Tractatus. This name isn’t the 
product of a one-track mind. For when one enters the house, 
one notices immediately that this is not a place that has lost 
track of things. Quite the opposite: It is a place of mirror- 
images. The house stands on six foundation pillars which 
support one another by means of cross-beams organized in a 
hierarchy. In the middle, however, there rises a seventh pillar 
whose function it is to cut through the building and free it 
from the ground. So the house with all its corners, angles and 
joints is protected, armoured and impregnable. And yet, and 
for that very reason, it is threatened with collapse and disap¬ 
pearance without trace - condemned in advance and from the 

The building is set out: It consists of propositions. Every 
proposition presupposes all the preceding ones and is itself the 

7 6 

presupposition of all the following propositions. Proposition 
by proposition, anyone who enters progresses through the 
prescribed rooms, and his step is supported by consistencies. 
Suddenly, with one proposition, one single proposition, the 
ground gives way beneath his feet. He falls head first into the 

Wittgenstein’s house is situated in a suburb of that city 
whose cathedral square is dominated by the towers of Thomas 
Aquinas’s cathedral. The small, modest pillars of Wittgenstein’s 
house support one another according to the same logico- 
philosophical method as the pillars of the cathedral support 
one another. But there appears to be a world of difference 
between the cathedral and the little house: The cathedral is a 
ship pointing in the direction of heaven, and the little house is 
a trap-door pointing in the direction of a bottomless abyss. 

But be careful: May Thomas Aquinas not have been right in 
saying after his revelation that everything he had written 
before was like straw? May not the heaven above the cathedral 
be the same black hole as the abyss beneath the little house? 
May not Wittgenstein’s little house be the cathedral of today? 
And those mirrors whose images simultaneously mirror one 
another, may they not be our equivalent of stained-glass 

The landscape portrayed in this essay, it goes without 
saying, is a metaphor. Is it possible to identify it as Vienna? 
And is it possible for anyone entering Wittgenstein’s little 
house in that unlikely place to make out a hint of the 
unsayable? What we cannot speak about we must pass over in 


Bare Walls 

We talk of bare walls, just as we talk of the bare body, as things 
that should be covered up. It takes courage to show the body as 
it is: naked. We are inescapably part of the Christian tradition. 
And in this tradition, nakedness means nature. Nature exists 
to be altered by Man, that ‘God-like spirit’. Nature is that which 
is taken for granted and has to be transformed into something 
man-made: into culture. In other words, nakedness belongs to 
entropy and has to be covered up by the activity of the human 
spirit working against entropy. Walls stand naked before us in 
defiance of the human will to form a design. Standing out 
against walls, Man identifies himself as a creature who opposes 
the formless chaos represented by the world. 

Yes, but are walls really something to be taken for granted? 
Of course not. They are built by human beings, and we know 
this not only from the ‘historical’ point of view (we know who 
built them, how and why) but from the ‘structural’ point of 
view as well (we know they have an un-natural structure). 

This gives rise to both a historical and an existential ques¬ 
tion. The historical problem goes like this: For a caveman, cave 
walls were taken for granted, and he opposed them by painting 
on them and expressing his will in opposition to nature (an 
expression of‘beauty’). Our walls are late and decadent forms 
of cave walls. The existential problem is as follows: Although 
our walls were made by human beings (by masons, architects 
and those who impose their ideology on masons and archi¬ 
tects), they are nevertheless taken for granted as far as those 
living between them are concerned. It is a mistake to say that 
culture is made by human beings and is therefore the realm of 
human freedom. For everyone living in a culture, it is some¬ 
thing taken for granted just as nature is. Therefore, walls are 
taken for granted. They are taken for granted even by those 
who build them. 

7 » 

Nevertheless, we must admit to a strange ontological 
ambivalence on the part of walls: Seen from the inside, they 
are taken for granted; seen from the outside, they are man¬ 
made. (This is a difference between the cavemen and us: A 
caveman could not see his walls from the outside; he had no 
‘philosophical distance’.) We can step out of our own four 
walls and see not just the outside world but our own four walls 
as well. We are creatures of reflection and speculation. We can 
therefore do something the caveman could not do: develop a 
philosophy of culture. And culture appears to us in the form of 
a steadily growing collection of things that we place up against 
the four walls of our dwelling to cover up their nakedness and 
hide the fact that they are taken for granted. Sometimes, these 
things representing culture cover up more than just the naked¬ 
ness of the walls. They cover cracks in the walls and conceal 
the possible danger of the building collapsing and burying us 
under the rubble. 

This image of culture becomes even more plausible if we 
imagine one of the four walls being knocked down and trans¬ 
formed into a window without any glass in it. The three 
remaining walls then become like a stage on which the tragi¬ 
comedy is enacted - quite a valid historical image of culture: 
Man as an actor on the stage. The valid historical thing about 
this image is its representative (symbolic) nature and the fact 
that it is a question of a historically finite process. Culture thus 
appears as‘fiction’ (in the sense of fingere, ‘to form’,‘to 
design’). The three remaining walls conceal the pathos with 
which Man seeks to impose his will on nature, and they also 
conceal (by reason of universal inertia) the possibility of his 
own defeat - since even the three remaining walls will collapse 
in the ‘end’. 

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that we all know this, 

Man will still go on filling the space between the walls with 
things, as witnesses to his power of design. He will do this 
simply because the walls exist and must not be left bare. And 


whenever there are moments in history when there is a will to 
reveal nakedness (moments of an inverted Puritanism that 
insists on the beauty of nakedness and the functional purpose 
of the walls), these moments are then the dialectical part of the 
process in which Man covers up his walls. This process does 
not aim to do away with the walls (that is impossible), but as 
Living-between-Walls is part of the human condition, he 
strives to make the best of them. Every cultural undertaking 
thus becomes a ‘heroic commitment’ in the true sense of the 
word, and art becomes a tragedy and agony in the sense it had 
for the Greek theatre. 

In short, seen from an aesthetic point of view, walls are the 
borders of a stage on which the tragedy of the human striving 
for beauty is enacted. 


With As Many Holes As a Swiss Cheese 

Houses are made up of a roof, walls with windows and doors, 
and other parts that are not quite so important. The roof is the 
important thing: ‘homeless’ and ‘without a roof over one’s head’ 
are synonyms. Roofs are devices to make us subservient: Under 
them one can cower and hide from one’s lord (be he a God or 
Nature). The German word for roof, Dach (like the cognate 
English word thatch), c omes from the same root as the Greek 
techne, accordingly, roof-tilers and thatchers are artists. They 
draw the line between the province of the Laws and the private 
space of the subservient slave. Under one’s own roof, the Laws 
are only valid up to a point. The tree-tops served as a roof for 
early hominids’ nests. We do not think that we ourselves are the 
ones who project the Laws. We do not need any roofs. 

Walls are there for us to defend ourselves against the outside 
world, not against the world over our heads. The German word 
for house walls, Mauern, like the French murs, comes from 
munire. to protect oneself. They are munitions. They are made 
up of two walls: The outside wall turns to face dangerous aliens 
(lurking on the outside), would-be immigrants; the inside wall 
turns inwards to the inmates of the house like a jailer responsi¬ 
ble for their security. In the case of walls without roofs (e.g. 
the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China), this function 
becomes clear: The outside is political, the inside wall secretive, 
and the wall has to protect the secret place of the heart from 
being visited by evil spirits. Anyone who can’t stand secretive¬ 
ness should go ahead and knock walls down. 

But even secret-mongers and patriots have to knock holes 
in walls. Windows and doors. So as to be able to look outside 
and go out. Before the verb to show came to have the meaning 
‘to display’, it was used in the sense of‘to see’ - i.e. looking out 
from inside, for which the window provided the device. One 
looked out from inside without getting wet at the same time. 


The Greeks called this sort of seeing theoria: perception with¬ 
out danger and without experiencing anything. Now it is actu¬ 
ally becoming possible to push devices through the window 
into the outside world to experience things in such a way that 
one does not run any sort of danger whatsoever. The phenom¬ 
enological question raised by this is: Are experiments carried 
out through the window (i.e. in theory) valid? Or does one 
have to go out the door to experience things? 

Doors are holes in walls for going in and out. One goes out 
to experience the world, and there one loses oneself, and one 
returns home in order to find oneself again, and in so doing 
one loses the world that one set out to conquer. This back-and- 
forth through the door Hegel calls the ‘unhappy consciousness’. 
In addition, it can happen that on returning home one finds 
the door locked. It is true that one has a bunch of keys in one’s 
pocket (or one can decode the secret code), but the secret code 
may have been re-coded in the meantime. Home and home¬ 
land are favourite places for con-tricks. Then one is stuck 
outside in the rain, practically in the gutter. Doors are devices 
that do not provide happiness, nor are they to be trusted. 

In addition, the following objection can also be made to 
windows and doors: One can look in through windows from 
the outside and climb in through them, and the public sphere 
can break into a private house through the door. One can of 
course protect windows from spies and burglars by installing 
shutters or protect the door from the police by building a 
drawbridge, but then one lives in fear, stuck within one’s four 
walls. There is not much future in such architecture. 

Roofs, walls, windows and doors do not fulfil their function 
anymore, and this explains why we are beginning to feel 
homeless. As we can’t really go back to tents and caves (even if 
some people try to), for better or worse we have to design a 
new type of house. 

In fact, we have already started to. Home-as-one’s-castle 
with its roof, walls, windows and doors now only exists in fairy 


tales. Material and immaterial cables have knocked as many 
holes in it as in a Swiss cheese: On the roof there is the aerial, 
telephone wire comes through the wall, the television takes the 
place of the window, and the door is replaced by the garage 
with the car. Home-as-one’s-castle has become a ruin with the 
wind of communication blowing through the cracks in the 
walls. It is a shoddy patchwork job. What is needed is a new 
type of architecture, a new design. 

Designers and architects must no longer think in terms of 
geography but in terms of topology. Enough of the house as an 
artificial cave; it is more a warping of the sphere of interper¬ 
sonal relations. Such a change in the way we think is not easy. 
The change from thinking in terms of flat surfaces to thinking 
in terms of the surface of a globe was an achievement for its 
time. But thinking in terms of topology is made easier by the 
use of synthesized images of mathematical equations. Thus, for 
example, one no longer sees the earth as a geographical loca¬ 
tion in the solar system but as a warp in the gravitational field 
of the sun. This is what the new type of house must look like: a 
warp in the interpersonal sphere by which relationships are 
‘attracted’. Such an attractive house would have to assemble 
these relationships, process them in the form of information, 
store them and pass them on. A creative house as the nucleus of 
an interpersonal network. 

Such a method of building a house using cable links is full 
of dangers. For example, the cables can be connected up, not 
to networks, but to the masses: something ‘fascistic’ rather 
than ‘dialogic’. Like televisions, not like telephones. In such a 
worst-case scenario, houses would be the cornerstones of an 
unimaginable totalitarianism. Architects and designers must 
provide a network of reversible cables. This is a task for tech¬ 
nology, and designers are up to it. 

To be sure, such a method of building houses would 
be a technological revolution that would go far beyond the 
competence of architecture and design. (This is the case in all 


technological revolutions, by the way.) Lacking roofs and 
walls, such architecture standing wide open to the world (i.e. 
made up entirely of reversible windows and doors) would alter 
the nature of existence. People would have nowhere to cower 
any more, nowhere to go to ground or take cover. All they 
would be able to do would be to offer one another their hands. 
They would no longer be subservient slaves; there would be no 
lord over them anymore to hide from or in whom to seek 
refuge. (Schiller is wrong when he claims that a good father 
must be living above the millions of brothers.) And there 
would no longer be any Nature threatening them and which 
they had to dominate. On the other hand, these houses stand¬ 
ing open to one another would produce a hitherto unimagin¬ 
able wealth of projects: Connected up to the network, they 
would be projectors of alternative worlds accessible to all 
human beings. 

Such a method of building houses would be a dangerous 
adventure. Less dangerous, however, than hanging on in the 
ruins of the houses of today. The earthquake that we are 
witnessing forces us to embark on the adventure. Should it 
meet with success (and that is not totally out of the question), 
we would then be able to live again, process noise into infor¬ 
mation, experience something. If we do not embark on the 
adventure, we are, for the foreseeable future, damned to 
huddle between four walls under a roof full of holes in front of 
our television screens or to drive around in our cars, experi¬ 
encing nothing. 


The Non-Thing 1 

Until recently, our environment consisted of things: houses 
and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and 
underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes. There were 
also people in our environment, but science had largely made 
them into objects: Like all other things, they are measurable, 
quantifiable and easily manipulated. In short, the environment 
was the condition in which we existed. Finding our way 
around it was the same thing as distinguishing ourselves from 
artificial objects. No easy task. Is this ivy on the wall of my 
house a natural thing because it is growing and because 
botany, a branch of science, is concerned with it? Or is it an 
artificial thing because my gardener planted it in keeping with 
an aesthetic model? And is my house an artificial thing 
because designing and building houses is an art, or is it natural 
for people to live in houses just as it is for birds to live in nests? 
Is there any sense at all in wanting to distinguish between 
nature and culture when it comes to finding your way around 
the world of things? Should one not resort to other ‘ontologi¬ 
cal’ criteria - for example, by distinguishing immovable from 
movable things, apartments from appurtenances? This too 
creates difficulties. A country would appear to be an immov¬ 
able thing, but Poland has moved further west. A bed would 
appear to be movable, but my bed has moved less than Poland 
has. Any catalogue of the world of things, whatever criteria are 
used to set it up - e.g. ‘animate-inanimate’, ‘mine-yours’, 
‘useful-useless’, ‘near-far’ - is bound to have grey areas and 
gaps. It is no easy matter knowing your way around things. 

And yet, as we are acknowledging with hindsight, it was 
rather cosy living in a world of things. Of course, one did have 
what could be called epistemological difficulties, but one knew 
more or less what one needed to do in order to be able to live. 
‘To live’ means to proceed towards death. On the way, one 


came across things that blocked one’s path. These things called 
‘problems’ had therefore to be removed. ‘To live’ then meant: 
to resolve problems in order to be able to die. And one 
resolved problems either by transforming intractable things 
into manageable ones - this was called ‘production’ - or by 
overcoming them - this was called ‘progress’. Until eventually, 
one came up against problems that could not be transformed 
or overcome. These were called ‘last things’, and one died of 
them. This was the paradox of living surrounded by things: 
One thought one had to resolve problems so as to clear the 
way to death, so as to ‘escape from circumstances’, and it was 
the unresolved problems one died of. This does not sound very 
pleasant, but it is basically comforting. One knows what to 
hold on to in life - i.e. things. 

Unfortunately, this has changed. Non-things now flood our 
environment from all directions, displacing things. These non- 
things are called ‘information’. ‘What nonsense,’ one is tempted 
to say. There has always been information, and, as for the 
meaning of the word in-formation, it has to do with ‘form in’ 
things. All things contain information: books and pictures, 
tins and cigarettes. One has only to read things, ‘decode’ them, 
to bring the information into the open. It has always been like 
that; there is nothing new in it. 

This objection is totally without substance. The information 
that now floods our environment displacing the things in it is 
of a kind that has never existed before: It is immaterial infor¬ 
mation. The electronic pictures on the television screen, the 
data stored in computers, all the reels of film and microfilm, 
holograms and programs, are such ‘soft’ ware that any attempt 
to grasp them is bound to fail. These non-things are, in the true 
sense of the expression, ‘impossible to get hold of’. They are 
only open to decoding. Of course, as with old-style informa¬ 
tion, they also appear to be inscribed within things: in cathode- 
ray tubes, celluloid, micro-chips, laser beams. But although this 
sounds ‘ontological’, it is an ‘existential’ illusion. The material 


basis of new-style information is negligible from the existential 
point of view. Evidence in support of this is the fact that hard¬ 
ware is getting cheaper and cheaper and software more and 
more expensive. The vestiges of materiality still adhering to 
these non-things can be discounted by looking at the new envi¬ 
ronment. The environment is becoming ever softer, more 
nebulous, more ghostly, and to find one’s way around it one 
has to take this spectral nature as a starting-point. 

But it is not even necessary to be fully conscious of the new 
nature of our environment. We are all imbued with it. Our 
existential concerns are shifting before our very eyes from 
things to information. We are less and less concerned with 
possessing things and more and more concerned with 
consuming information. Not just another piece of furniture or 
article of clothing but another holiday trip, an even better 
school for our children, another music festival - these are what 
we want. Things start to recede into the background of our 
area of concern. At the same time, a larger and larger section of 
society is engaged in the production of information, of 
‘services’, of management, of systems, and a smaller and 
smaller section is involved in producing things. The working 
classes, those producers of things, are becoming a minority, 
and managers and apparatchiks, those producers of non- 
things, form the majority. Bourgeois morality based on things: 
The production, accumulation and consumption of things 
give way to something new. Life in an environment that is 
becoming immaterial takes on a new complexion. 

One can object to this picture of change on the grounds 
that it does not take into account the mountain of junk 
accompanying the advent of non-things. This objection is 
without foundation: The junk proves the demise of things. 
What is happening is that we feed information into machines 
so that they spew out such junk in huge quantities and for next 
to no cost. This throw-away material, all those lighters, razors, 
pens, plastic bottles, are not true things; one cannot hold on to 


them. And just as we get better and better at learning how to 
feed information into machines, all things will be transformed 
into the same kind of junk, even houses and pictures. All 
things will lose their value, and all values will be transformed 
into information. ‘Revaluation of all values’. This is also by way 
of a definition of the new imperialism: Humanity is becoming 
dominated by those groups who have control over informa¬ 
tion, be it the construction of atomic power stations and 
weapons, aeroplanes and motor vehicles, or genetic engineer¬ 
ing and management systems. Such groups sell this informa¬ 
tion at inflated prices to a dominated humanity. 

That which is happening before our very eyes, this displace¬ 
ment of things to the outer limits of our concern and this focus 
of our concerns on information - is without precedent in 
history. So it is very unsettling. If we wish to find our way 
around it, despite the lack of precedents, we must look for 
some parallel. Otherwise, how are we supposed to try and 
imagine how we shall have to live in such an immaterial world? 
What will a human being be like who is not concerned with 
things, but with information, symbols, codes and models? 
There is one parallel: the first Industrial Revolution. At that 
time, concerns shifted from animate nature, cows and horses, 
farmers and artisans to things: machines, the products of 
machines, the labouring masses and capital, and so arose the 
‘modern’ world that was, until very recently, the norm. At that 
time, one could claim with some justification that a farmer in 
1750 bc had more in common with a farmer in ad 1750 than the 
latter had with an industrial worker, albeit his son, in 1780. 
Something similar is true again today. We are closer to a worker 
or citizen of the time of the French Revolution than to our chil¬ 
dren - yes, those children playing with electronic gadgets. Of 
course, this parallel may not make the current revolution any 
less unsettling, but it may help us to get a hold on things. 

We will in fact come to realize that our attempt to get hold 
of things in life is not exactly the rational modus vivendi we 


were inclined to think it was, but that our ‘objectivity’ is some¬ 
thing relatively recent. We will come to realize that one can 
also live differently: perhaps better even. Besides, ‘modern’ life, 
life surrounded by things, is not the absolute paradise our 
ancestors perhaps thought it might be. Many non-Western 
societies in the Third World have good reason to reject it. If 
our children too are starting to reject it, this is not necessarily 
cause for despair. On the contrary, we must try and imagine 
this new life surrounded by non-things. 

Admittedly, this is no easy task. This new human being in 
the process of being born all around us and within us is in fact 
without hands. He does not handle things anymore, so in his 
case one cannot speak of actions anymore. Nor of practice, 
nor of work for that matter. The only things left of his hands 
are the tips of his fingers, which he uses to tap on keys so as to 
play with symbols. The new human being is not a man of 
action anymore but a player: homo ludens as opposed to homo 
faber. Life is no longer a drama for him but a performance. It is 
no longer a question of action but of sensation. The new 
human being does not wish to do or to have but to experience. 
He wishes to experience, to know and, above all, to enjoy. As 
he is no longer concerned with things, he has no problems. 
Instead, he has programs. And yet he is still a human being: He 
will die and he knows it. We die of things like unresolved prob¬ 
lems; he will die of non-things like program errors. If we think 
of him along these lines, he comes closer to us. The advent of 
the non-thing in our environment is a radical change, but he 
will not be able to alter the basic mode of existence, being 
unto death. Whether death is seen as the last thing or as a 


The Non-Thing 2 

Since human beings have been human beings, they have been 
handling their environment. It is the hand with its opposable 
thumb that characterizes human existence in the world. This 
hand characteristic of the human organism grasps things. The 
world is grasped, by the hand, as being made up of things. And 
not just grasped: The things grasped by the hand are possessed 
so as to be transformed. The hand in-forms the things grasped 
by it. Thus the human being is surrounded by two worlds: the 
world of‘nature’ (of things that are to hand and to be grasped) 
and the world of‘culture’ (that of handy, in-formed things). 
Until quite recently, one was of the opinion that the history of 
humankind is the process whereby the hand gradually trans¬ 
forms nature into culture. This opinion, this ‘belief in 
progress’, now has to be abandoned. It is in fact becoming 
more and more apparent that the hand does not leave in¬ 
formed things, as it were, alone but that it continues to wave 
them about until the information contained within them is 
worn down. The hand consumes culture and transforms it 
into waste. The human being is not surrounded by two worlds, 
then, but by three: of nature, of culture and of waste. This 
waste is becoming more and more interesting: Whole branches 
of knowledge such as ecology, archaeology, etymology, 
psychoanalysis, are concerned with studying waste. And it 
turns out that waste returns to nature. Human history, then, is 
not a straight line leading from nature to culture. It is a circle 
turning from nature to culture, from culture to waste, from 
waste to nature and so on. A vicious circle. 

To be able to break out of this circle, one would have to 
have non-consumable, ‘memorable’ information at one’s 
disposal. Information that the hand could not wave about. But 
the hand waves all things about; it tries to grasp everything. 
Non-consumable information must therefore not be stored in 


things. A culture without things would have to be produced. If 
this was successful, there would be no more forgetting; then 
human history would in fact be a linear progression. An ever¬ 
growing memory. Today we are witnessing the attempt to 
produce such a culture without things, such an ever-growing 
memory. Computer memories are an example of this. 

A computer memory is a non-thing. Similarly, electronic 
images and holograms are non-things. These are non-things 
simply because they cannot be held in the hand. These are non- 
things because they are non-consumable information. It is true 
that these non-things are for the moment trapped within things 
like silicon chips, cathode-ray tubes or laser beams. But 
Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and similar works of futur¬ 
ology make it at least possible to imagine the liberation of non- 
things from things. The liberation of software from hardware. 

In fact, we do not need to go in for futurological fantasizing: 

The lack of solidity of the culture from which things are increas¬ 
ingly absent is already a daily experience. The things around us 
are contracting (what is called‘miniaturization’) and are getting 
cheaper and cheaper, and the non-things around us are expand¬ 
ing (what is called ‘information’). And these non-things are 
ephemeral and eternal at the same time. They are not to hand, 
and yet they are handy: They are memorable. 

In such a situation, there is nothing for the hands to get up 
to or do. As this situation is impossible to grab hold of, noth¬ 
ing in it is capable of being grasped, and nothing can be 
handled. In it, the hand - the grasping and productive act of 
handling - has become redundant. Whatever can still be 
grasped and produced is done automatically by non-things, by 
programs: by ‘artificial intelligences’ and robotic machines. In 
such a situation, the human being has been emancipated from 
grasping and productive work; he has become unemployed. 
Unemployment today is not an ‘economic phenomenon’ but a 
symptom of the redundancy of work in a situation without 


The hands have become redundant and can atrophy. This is 
not true, however, of the fingertips. On the contrary: They 
have become the most important organs of the body. Because 
in the situation of being without things, it is a matter of 
producing and benefiting from information without things. 
The production of information is a game of permutations 
using symbols. To benefit from information is to observe 
symbols. In the situation of being without things, it is a matter 
of playing with symbols and observing them. To program and 
benefit from programs. And to play with symbols, to program, 
one has to press keys. One has to do the same to observe 
symbols, to benefit from programs. Keys are devices that 
permutate symbols and make them perceptible: viz. the piano 
and the typewriter. Fingertips are needed to press keys. The 
human being in the future without things will exist by means 
of his fingertips. 

Hence one has to ask what happens existentially when I 
press a key. What happens when I press a typewriter key, a 
piano key, a button on a television set or on a telephone. What 
happens when the President of the United States presses the 
red button or the photographer the camera button. I choose a 
key, I decide on a key. I decide on a particular letter of the 
alphabet in the case of a typewriter, on a particular note in the 
case of a piano, on a particular channel in the case of a televi¬ 
sion set, or on a particular telephone number. The President 
decides on a war, the photographer on a picture. Fingertips are 
organs of choice, of decision. The human being is emanci¬ 
pated from work in order to be able to choose and decide. The 
situation of being unemployed and without things makes his 
freedom of choice and freedom of decision possible. 

This freedom of fingertips without hands is rather unset¬ 
tling, however. If I hold a revolver against my temple and pull 
the trigger, I have decided to take my own life. This would 
appear to be the height of freedom: I am able to free myself 
from any predicament by pulling the trigger. But in reality, 


with this pulling of the trigger I set in motion a process that is 
pre-programmed in the revolver. I have not, as it were, made a 
‘free’ decision, but I have made a decision within the limits of 
the revolver program. And the typewriter program, the piano 
program, the television program, the telephone program, the 
American administrative program, the program of the 
camera. The freedom of decision of pressing a key with one’s 
fingertips turns out to be a programmed freedom. A choice of 
prescribed possibilities. I choose according to the regulations 
(outlined in the manual). 

It looks, accordingly, as though the society of the future 
without things would be split into two classes: those program¬ 
ming and those being programmed. Into a class of those who 
produce programs and a class of those who behave according 
to programs. Into a class of players and a class of puppets. This 
is to look at things from too optimistic a point of view. 

Because what those programming do when they press keys in 
order to play with symbols and produce information is the 
same movement of the fingertips as the one carried out by 
those being programmed. They too decide within a program 
that could be called the ‘metaprogram’. And the players with 
the metaprogram in turn press the keys of a ‘metametapro¬ 
gram’. And this regression from meta- to meta-, from the 
programmers of programmers of programmers, proves to be 
infinite. No: The society of the future without things will be 
classless, a society of programmers who are programmed. 
This, then, is the freedom of decision made available to us by 
the emancipation from work. Programmed totalitarianism. 

Mind you, an extremely satisfactory totalitarianism. Since 
the programs are patently getting better and better. That 
means that they contain astronomical numbers of possibilities 
to choose between. Numbers that go way beyond the human 
capacity for making decisions. So that I never, while making 
decisions, pressing keys, come to the limits of the program. 
The keys at my disposal are so numerous that my fingertips 


can never touch all of them. Hence I get the impression that I 
am making completely free decisions. The totalitarianism 
doing the programming, once it has realized itself, will no 
longer be identifiable by those participating in it: It will be 
invisible to them. It is visible only in the embryonic state it is 
in today. We are perhaps the last generation to be able to see 
the way things are going. 

We can see this because for the time being we still have 
hands with which we can grasp things so as to be able to 
handle them. Hence we can see the approaching totalitarian¬ 
ism doing the programming for what it is: a non-thing, since 
we can’t grasp it. Perhaps, however, this inability to grasp the 
state of things shows how ‘outdated’ we are? For, after all, is not 
a society emancipated from work, believing that it can make 
free decisions, the kind of utopia that has always beckoned to 
humanity? Perhaps we are approaching the fulfilment of the 
ages? In order to be able to judge this, one would have to make 
a closer analysis of the term program, this key term of today 
and tomorrow. 



The cave, the womb of the mountains, is our dwelling. 

However tall, however functional, however open they may be, 
our buildings are, and remain in spite of everything, imita¬ 
tions of caves. The more comfortable our rooms, the more 
similar they are to caves. Our troglodytism is confirmed on the 
one hand by history and on the other by depth-psycholcgy. Is 
the cave really the original habitat of human beings? The 
answer depends on the meaning we give to the word origin. 

The caveman is a descendant of those who lived in nests. The 
cave is only a stage on the journey from the nest towards the 
coming into being of humanity. Because‘origin’ means some¬ 
thing different in the case of human beings than in the case of 
horses, for example. There is in fact an original horse, 
Eohippus, but no truly original human being. Neither a nest 
(tent) nor a cave (house) is a natural human dwelling. Nothing 
human is natural. That which is natural about us is inhuman. 
Nevertheless: A nest and a cave, even if they are human, are 

The dialectic between nest and cave, between steppe and 
river, between herdsman and farmer, between tent and house, 
is at issue here. In other words, what is at issue is the carpet. 
The carpet is to the culture of the tent what architecture is to 
the culture of the house. But it has flown out of the tent across 
the steppe and in through an open window of our dwellings. 
Now our floors have become the base for carpets. And carpets 
have turned into pretexts. 

The first carpets known to us appear in Egypt in the 
sixteenth century bc as a contribution by the plains of Asia to 
the marvellous architecture of the river. Carpets triumph on 
the banks of the great rivers of China and India, brought from 
Mongolia by Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan. The greater 
Persian empire of Tamerlane can be seen as a synthesis 


between the land of Two Rivers, the steppes of Central Asia 
and the Pamirs. A synthesis given insufficient attention in our 
philosophy of history. The wonderful Peruvian carpets are 
never mentioned in it because, like everything pre-Columbian, 
they introduce confusion into our categories. 

The Gothic art of carpet-making is a distant rumbling of 
the desert storm, originating in the Russian steppes and the 
Sahara, that threatens feudal castles, projecting its shadows 
onto their walls. The Gobelin tapestries of the eighteenth 
century slipped through the gaps in the ruinous castles of the 
West as messengers from Persia and China. As the last 
remnants of the bold blast across tundra and taiga, they now 
whisper timidly on the Rococo walls of a doomed French aris¬ 
tocracy. And if it is correct, if all our carpets are raging storms 
that have slipped through gaps in the walls to whisper around 
us, how do we explain the renaissance in carpets that we see in 
so-called art exhibitions? Because if this is correct, then surely 
the carpets are not just messengers, but heralds of a storm. 
Egyptian carpets bear witness not only to the whirlwinds of 
Sinai but also to Akhenaten. Gothic carpets bear witness not 
only to the Seljuk hordes but also to Simone Martini and even 
to Luther. The Gobelin tapestries witness not only the Thirty 
Years’ War between the faiths but also the French Revolution 
and the Industrial Revolution. What are the carpets of today 
testament to? What storms do they bring and project against 
our walls to herald what coming whirlwind? 

The answer is concealed within the carpets themselves. They 
are weavings whose weft conceals and covers up the warp. In a 
well-knotted woollen carpet, the fact that its warp is nothing 
but ordinary string is concealed by means of high-quality 
knots in the wool. The attitude of one knotting a carpet is the 
opposite of that of a weaver of cloth. Our clothes are results of 
a weft that does not deny the warp but raises it to the surface. 
Carpets, on the other hand, are the results of a knotting that 
denies and conceals its own warp. This description of the 


techniques of weaving and of knotting is intended to express 
the conspiratorial, even deceitful, nature of the affair. Knotting 
carpets is a campaign on the part of the surface against the 
warp, against its own base. That is why the carpet-maker has 
recourse to designs that have been worked out exactly in 
advance and that are fully aware of the fact that they are only 
pretexts. Carpet patterns that are laid down in precise detail on 
paper and other disposable material, and that are followed in 
the course of knotting carpets, are works of art intended to be 
thrown away. There can be no spontaneous movements in 
making carpets. Every single knot has been thought out in 
advance. Knotting itself is not a fluid process but a jerky one, 
every leap of which is prescribed within a provisional mosaic. 
Thus, for example, green, then yellow, then red and then blue 
knots are knotted onto the warp in that order, and the 
prescribed form only becomes visible after completion of the 
process of leaps. The static impression that carpets give is a 
deception: It is the result of a leaping, seemingly random tech¬ 
nique based in turn on a static design. 

The attempt to put ourselves into the shoes of a carpet 
weaver is destined to fail. What he does is recommended by 
psychologists today as psychotherapy, but the recommenda¬ 
tion is questionable. It is true that the carpet weaver appears to 
manipulate woollen yarn and styles of weaving with his 
fingers, but he does so in a paradoxical way. He engages with 
the material by following a design that is prescribed for him, 
making this design appear so as to cover up the material. The 
carpet weaver does not aim to reveal what he has done but to 
conceal it. He aims at an appearance, and that means not just 
beauty but deceit. He aims to conceal the truth by means of 
beauty. He is committed to presenting Schopenhauer’s world 
as representation as opposed to that philosopher’s world as 
will. In short, to hanging the carpet so as to cover the wall. 

This investigation of the carpet can produce an answer to 
the question ‘Whence does the wind blow it to us, and whither 


is it blowing us?’ It is a cold wind blowing towards us from 
those regions where the truth was questioned. And it is blow¬ 
ing towards those realms where beauty and appearance 
conceal the fact that we have lost the truth. Carpets are hung 
on walls so as to conceal cracks in the wall. This is not the 
worst way of describing the situation of culture today. 



And the Lord spake: ‘Like a potter’s vessels shall the peoples be 
broken to pieces.’ The intention of this essay is to interpret 
this ominous prophecy. It can be interpreted because it says 
many things. Unambiguous statements cannot be; they are 
not open to interpretation. The sentence to be interpreted is 
biblical, the Bible is open to multiple interpretations, and this 
is what theologians live off. Hence this essay belongs to a long 
tradition, but it is not necessarily meant to be read in the 
spirit of theological disputes. 

There is an obvious interpretation for the sentence quoted: 
Each one of us has broken a pot at least once, but not one of us 
has ever broken a people. For the Lord, however, peoples are 
what pots are for us, and He threatens to demonstrate this. 

The interpretation I shall attempt here will represent a totally 
different point of view. It will start from the premise that, in 
the sight of the Lord, pots are something different from what 
cooks consider them to be. In fact, in the sight of the Lord pots 
resemble more those forms that the Ancients referred to as 
‘immutable Ideas’. This is the starting-point for bringing the 
following ominous prophecy to life: ‘You along with all your 
allegedly immutable Ideas shall be broken to pieces.’ 

Pots are considered to be empty forms. They are that. It is 
not a matter here of reducing a difficult subject to something 
as simple as a pot. Quite the contrary: It is a matter here of 
looking at ‘pure form’ phenomenologically; this, then, is to 
look at it as a pot. In other words: The question of what form 
is is not being simplified here, but the question of what a pot is 
is getting more and more complicated. A pot is a vessel, a tool 
to be grasped and held. It is an epistemological (phenomeno¬ 
logical) tool. For example: I take hold of an empty pot and 
hold it under the water fountain. By doing this, I have given 
the pot content and the water form, and the water now 


in-formed by the pot is included in the pot instead of flowing 
amorphously. This is a banal fact, but in fact no epistemologi¬ 
cal theory, and no theory of information, has so far come to 
terms with it. 

Here is one example of the difficulties arising from this: It is 
well-known that de Gaulle had ‘une certaine idee de la France’, 
even if he unfortunately left open the question of what his idea 
of France was. Did the General perhaps go into a potter’s 
studio and look around until he found a pot into which he 
could pour France? Or did he buy a particularly beautiful pot 
and then try to pour France carefully into it? Or, on the other 
hand, did he shape a pot himself and then hold it under the 
French fountain so as to catch France? 

These are unsettling questions, as they concern not only the 
General but the whole proud edifice of science. What am I 
doing when I formulate the laws of nature mathematically 
(create for myself‘une certaine idee’ of natural phenomena)? 
Do I look among the available algorithms until I find one 
into which the phenomenon fits? Or do I choose a particularly 
beautiful one (for example, Einstein’s equation) and then care¬ 
fully try to pour phenomena into it? Or do I cobble an equa¬ 
tion together and then go fishing for phenomena with it? The 
whole gigantic crystal palace of algorithms and theorems that 
we call science stands on pillars built of answers to such ques¬ 
tions. And these pillars are shaky. The Lord’s threat to break 
the peoples like a potter’s vessels takes on a new significance. 

Perhaps a consideration of the production of a pot can help 
here? A pot is a hollow space, and this sounds like something 
negative. A hollow space arises when something is taken out of 
a full one, is abstracted. With the help of a shovel, for example. 
A pit is such a hollow space. Pots too can be made in this way, 
for example by scooping out a ball of clay with the thumb. But 
pottery was probably invented in quite a different way. At first, 
one most likely clasped the fingers of both hands together so 
as to make a hollow space to catch drinking water. Then, 


instead of fingers, one intertwined twigs - hence the origin of 
baskets (and weaving in general). As, however, baskets cannot 
hold liquid, one lined them with clay. Finally, people burnt 
these waterproof baskets either by chance or intentionally (we 
know how much chance and intention condition one 
another), and in this way the beautiful original pots with a 
black geometric pattern on a red background (the traces of the 
burnt twigs) were produced. 

This diversion into the technology of ceramics has not been 
all that productive. It has produced the result that empty pots, 
pure Ideas, pure forms, can be abstractions as well as inten¬ 
tionally produced, interwoven constructs. For someone who 
thinks formally (a mathematician, for example), this does not 
make any clearer what he is actually involved in. Whether it is 
a matter of weaving forms to catch phenomena, or of abstract¬ 
ing forms from phenomena, or even of playing with empty 
forms (like soap-bubbles). One thing is clear about this, 
however: Whether woven or hollowed out, empty vessels can 
never be broken. There is nothing about them that can be 
broken. Take the empty vessel: T +1 = 2 ’. Irrespective of 
whether it is a woven construct to catch countable things or an 
abstraction made out of counted things, it is without time and 
space. There is no point in asking it whether it is also true at 
4:00 p.m. in Vladivostok. This is how pots must appear in the 
sight of the Lord. And they shall in any case be broken into 
pieces by Flim. 

If one looks at the world from a potter’s point of view, one 
sees behind all the phenomena and throughout all the 
phenomena the pots that hold and in-form these phenomena. 
Behind the apple the sphere, behind the tree-trunk the cylin¬ 
der, behind the female body several geometric figures, and, 
recently, behind apparently formless, chaotic phenomena 
(such as clouds and rocks) so-called ‘fractal’ forms. This 
potter’s way of seeing, this X-ray vision, for which phenomena 
are fleeting veils concealing eternal forms, is equivalent to a 


theoretical view. And this view has in our day developed a new 
pottery technology, an electronic ceramics. We have pieces of 
equipment that display empty, but coloured, so-called artifi¬ 
cial images made of algorithms on computer screens. Anyone 
looking at such images has in front of them the empty, 
unbreakable vessels hiding behind phenomena. 

If Pythagoras could see the same empty form behind the 
musical octave and behind the triangle, then this was a mysti¬ 
cal view. If Plato saw the eternal Forms of beauty and good¬ 
ness in theory through phenomena and retrieved them from 
amnesia, then this was an act of illumination. Yes, even 
Galileo, when he recognized the simple formula of free fall 
behind the formless movements of heavy bodies, and those 
others who were able to make out the relatively simple chemi¬ 
cal formulae from the chaotic mass of materials, they all still 
thought they had partly uncovered the Lord’s building plan 
behind phenomena. But what about those who sit at comput¬ 
ers, playfully displaying empty forms on their screens and then 
waiting until others fill these empty vessels with contents? And 
what about those who design so-called ‘virtual spaces’ in order 
to create alternative worlds out of them? They shall be broken 
by the Lord along with their pots. 

The interpretation of the prophecy being offered here is the 
following: The peoples of the computer, these producers of 
pots, shall be broken along with their empty vessels. This may 
not sound very biblical, but it is biblical enough to give one the 
creeps and should be mentioned in hushed tones at all confer¬ 
ences on things like ‘Digital Imaging’, ‘Cyberspace’ and 
‘Artificial Simulation and Holography’. Interpreted in this way, 
the prophecy, as with this entire essay on pots, is talking about 
hollowness. Empty pots are hollow vessels. Eternal Ideas are 
pure, hollow thoughts. Mathematical formulae are hollow 
propositions without content. The purest of all Ideas, the 
highest of all Forms, is the Godhead. Because pure Ideas are 
hollow, they are unbreakably eternal. The Lord is eternal. And 


this is what the computer people, these potters of form, are 
beginning to see. They are acting like the Lord (sicut Deus) 
when they design empty forms, fill them with possibilities and 
thus create alternative worlds. They shall be broken by the 

By using the word hollow, one gets to the root of things. 
From ‘hollow’ there come ‘Hale’ and ‘Hell’, as one can see from 
the English ‘whole’ and ‘hole’. By using the word hollow, you 
are talking of the Whole. For quite a long time, science, by 
thinking formally, has been disclosing what is behind 
phenomena, and it sees the hollowness (the curved space of 
mutually intersecting fields of possibility) behind them. But 
only recently have we begun to compute alternative contents 
out of this hollowness. Only recently have we begun to learn 
what pottery is all about: about producing empty forms in 
order to in-form what is amorphous. About what the Lord 
was doing on the first day of Creation. This is the real Big 
Bang: that we have finally learnt how to make pots. And the 
prophecy says: We shall be broken by the Lord along with our 
pots, before we are able to do it as well as, or even better than, 

This is how it is with interpretations. They are put forward 
in order to be falsified - i.e. in order to provoke new, equally 
falsifiable interpretations. This final statement can be read as a 
prayer in view of the ominous prophecy that has been the 
subject of this interpretation. 


Shamans and Dancers with Masks 

If one feeds the equations that science uses as a means of 
expression into a computer, then the scientific image of the 
world will appear on the screen. In fact, this will be in the 
shape of a network of intersecting and overlapping connec¬ 
tions. In some places, the connections will condense and form 
pockets. These troughs within the fields of the network are 
called ‘matter’, while the connections forming them are called 
‘energy’. If one ‘animates’ this computer image (makes it into a 
film), it is possible to observe the pockets bulging out of the 
networks of connections becoming more and more complex 
in various places, then levelling out again and finally disap¬ 
pearing without trace into the network. The ‘happy ending’ of 
the film consists of a network of connections extending amor¬ 
phously in all directions. This can be called ‘heat death’. One of 
these troughs can be identified as ‘our sun’. In this valley, one 
recognizes a sub-valley as representing ‘our earth’. If one takes 
a closer look at this sub-valley, one can make out a large 
number of tiny pockets: the biomass enveloping the earth. If 
one directs one’s attention towards these splashes, we ourselves 
become visible among the small, fleeting wavelets. 

If we recognize ourselves in this way as temporary pockets 
of force fields intersecting one another, then the whole of 
traditional anthropology goes out of the window. In this case, 
we are in effect knots of relations (connections) without any 
core (any ‘spirit’, any T, any ‘self’, indeed without anything 
at all to ‘identify’ ourselves by). If we unravel the knots of 
relations that we are made up of, then there is nothing left to 
hold on to. To put it another way: The ‘I’ is then that abstract 
point at which concrete relations intersect and from which 
concrete relations begin. We can then of course ‘identify’ 
ourselves with these knots of relations within ourselves: 
for example, as a heavy body (nodal intersection in the 


electromagnetic and gravitational fields), and as an organism 
(nodal intersection in the genetic and ecological fields), and as 
a ‘psyche’ (nodal intersection in the collective psychological 
field), and as a‘person’ (nodal intersection in the mutually 
intersecting social and inter-subjective fields). Instead of a 
‘person’, one can also talk of a ‘mask’. What was formerly called 
‘identification of the self’ can now be better identified by 
reference to a mask (or to several interchangeable and super- 
imposable masks). 

Thus the term mask is returned to its original existential 
meaning. One is what one is only by wearing (dancing in) a 
particular mask, by the other members of the tribe recogniz¬ 
ing the mask and giving it its due. Originally, there were rela¬ 
tively few masks: those belonging to the shaman, the hunter, 
the homosexual. Later on, masks became more numerous; 
today they can be worn on top of one another. One can, for 
example, dance as a bank manager and wear underneath one’s 
mask that of a connoisseur of art, a bridge player and a father. 
If one peels off one mask after another, then nothing is left at 
the end (just like an onion). Existential analysis puts it thus: 
The T is that which one says ‘you’ to. 

If one sees society (the field of inter-subjective relations) 
in this way - as an organization hiring out masks - then it 
represents a network within which physical, biological, 
psychological (and other) nodes are captured in the shape of 
masks so as to be condensed into ‘persons’. It is, then, a ques¬ 
tion of producing these masks and applying them to the 
multitude of relations in the network. Here the design of 
masks actually becomes a political matter. This is clear in the 
case of an Amazonian tribe: How is the design of the shaman’s 
mask produced, and in what way is the mask applied to the 
young man approaching puberty so that he is recognized by 
everybody as a shaman and may identify himself as such? In a 
society as complex as so-called ‘post-industrial’ ones, this 
process is less apparent. It is, however, simple enough to 


formulate this question so that most political categories are 
plunged into total confusion. 

It is not very likely that one will get much of an answer from 
the Indians of the Amazon if one asks them about this. They 
will attribute the design of a mask to superhuman powers (e.g. 
an ancestor in the form of a leopard) and will explain its appli¬ 
cation by reference to a sacred tradition. This is an ideology, 
one no less credible than our own ideologies but one that is 
nevertheless alien to us. Our own ideologies (particularly the 
Judeo-Christian and Humanistic ones) presuppose a core of 
T that insinuates itself into the available masks and conceals 
itself within them, and this makes it more difficult to under¬ 
stand the design of the mask than invoking an ancestor in the 
form of a leopard does. Hence there is nothing left for it but to 
attempt to step back a little from the field of inter-subjective 
relations and look at masks from the outside - an impossible 
task, for, without a mask, ‘we’ do not exist and are therefore not 
in a position to recognize masks. (This used to be referred to as 
the ‘dialectic of the unhappy consciousness’.) 

There is, however, one thing we can say: As ladles that are, as 
it were, plunged into the stew of relations so as to serve up 
persons, masks themselves somehow emerged from the stew; 
they are themselves inter-subjective forms. (The bank 
manager’s mask has not floated down to society from some 
heaven of a higher vocation or profession; vocation and profes¬ 
sion follow from the mask.) Thus the question of the design of 
masks is an inter-subjective issue. This means: That which I 
am, I only became through a collective ‘dialogue’. The conclu¬ 
sion to be drawn from this is: The ‘I’ is not only the wearer of a 
mask but also a designer of masks for others. Thus I ‘realize’ 
myself not only whenever I dance in masks, but equally when¬ 
ever I, together with others, design masks for others. The ‘I’ is 
not only that which one says ‘you’ to, but also that which says 
‘you’. Of course, I can only design masks while wearing a mask. 
This is not a satisfactory answer to the question of the design of 


masks, but at best the starting-point for further questioning. It 
is only this process of asking questions that differentiates us 
from the Indians (including those who dance around us or 
who get their masks from watching television). Design means, 
among other things, fate. This process of asking questions is 
the collective attempt to seize hold of fate and, collectively, to 
shape it. 


The Submarine 

If Modernity represents the shattering, fragmentation and 
breaking up of the medieval way of thinking by means of 
which the Catholic Church pointed minds towards the sign of 
things to come, then the years beginning with the Industrial 
and French revolutions and ending with the Submarine point 
towards a reuniting of the human intellect under the sign of 
solipsism. Based on what we have inherited in the way of the 
documentary evidence and archaeological remains from that 
eventful period, plagued as it was by wars, I shall attempt to 
illustrate which areas of science, philosophy, art and religion 
were the chief influences that led inevitably to the creation of 
the Submarine. The physical sciences dissolved matter and 
energy into a fog of mathematical and logical symbols; the 
biological sciences reduced life and its manifestations to a mass 
of abstract principles; the social sciences identified society as 
an organization of laws that can be expressed simply in terms 
of statistical mathematics. Religions identified God as an 
abstract idea and the Devil as at best an allegory, if not a myth. 
The arts became more and more abstract; they presented and 
represented nothing, they worked in a vacuum. Philosophy 
abandoned the Ding an sich, and thus the search to discover the 
way things really are, and limited itself to formal statements of 
pure logic, pure mathematics and pure grammar or to discus¬ 
sion about Existence, to the exclusion of Being as such. In other 
words: The sense of reality disappeared from all areas of intel¬ 
lectual activity; the world turned into a dream, the dream of an 
ideal world (at the beginning of the nineteenth century) being 
distorted into a nightmare (around the middle of the twenti¬ 
eth). The world turned into a dream scenario, but this was not 
accompanied by activity trailing off into resignation; on the 
contrary, there has not been a period that has seen so much 
feverish activity, fighting, painting, writing or thinking. 


Humanity did not resemble so much a peaceful dreamer as 
someone tossing and turning, their sleep disturbed by bad 
dreams. Around the middle of the twentieth century, they were 
rudely awakened from their troubled sleep, or - to put it 
another way - their dream became real. I only want to talk 
about the outward form of this awakening; we shall leave until 
later an account of its significance and consequences. 

Research in physics in that period managed to prove the 
fundamental unity of matter and energy in a purely mathe¬ 
matical way and without the need for any deeper insight or 
display of mysticism. The consequence of this, it goes without 
saying, was that unlimited amounts of energy suddenly 
became available, and unlimited amounts of matter offered 
themselves for destruction. For the fact that the same discov¬ 
ery made it possible to condense matter from energy - thus 
not only to destroy it but to build it up as well - is a much later 
development. There was only one uncertain limitation upon 
this limitless ability to destroy: the high financial cost of 
launching destruction. This at first precluded the possibility of 
any one individual annihilating the world; that remained the 
prerogative of those governments that had the necessary funds 
available. Over the course of time, however, it became more 
and more apparent that the cost of destroying the world was 
going to drop considerably; in other words, the list of potential 
world-destroyers was broadening to include more and more 
governments, economically powerful institutions such as large 
companies and banks, and, in the end, individuals. There were 
no moral barriers impeding this development (after all, if the 
world was a dream, thus ethically neutral, one was free to go 
ahead and destroy it), and it must have seemed to people in 
the middle of the twentieth century that the eventual destruc¬ 
tion of the world of things was only a question of time, in fact 
a period to be measured in years rather than decades. This is 
the period that saw the establishment of that unique phenom¬ 
enon that we have come to call the ‘Submarine’. 


The correspondence between scientists and philosophers, 
artists and theologians, who created this Noah’s Ark to escape 
the Flood has survived in part. To illustrate the prevailing 
intellectual climate of the times, I quote from one of those 
historic letters. ‘I am aware’, it says, 

that my training as a chemist does not qualify me in the 
slightest to be a saviour of humanity. I am myself unsure 
about the motives inducing me to participate in our 
insane experiment to stand out against an inescapable 
development. The human race appears to be condemned 
to destruction as a result of their mistakes and wrong¬ 
doings; and it sometimes seems to me that our attempt 
to suspend this sentence is highly sinful. 

I could go on to give many other examples, but I think that I 
have provided adequate evidence of the yawning gulf between 
logic and ethics, knowledge and belief, at that time, and of the 
despair that led to such a gulf. What strikes me as one of the 
greatest achievements of those seventeen men and women 
who gave up human society in order to save it is that they 
united knowledge and belief once again in their own persons 
and thus found their way back to reality. 

The external circumstances are so well known that I need 
only mention them briefly: Seventeen prominent men and 
women from the worlds of science, art and religion misappro¬ 
priated public funds, putting them in a position to build what 
was for the time a gigantic submarine or, rather, to build it in 
separate parts and assemble it in an abandoned shipyard in 
Norway. This submarine made them materially independent 
thanks to a nuclear reactor that provided an unlimited supply 
of energy, and biologically independent thanks to a laboratory 
based on seaweed that provided an unlimited supply of food, 
and intellectually independent thanks to radio and television 
sets that guaranteed permanent intellectual contact with the 


rest of humanity. In this submarine, they installed equipment 
that is best thought of under the common heading ‘weapons 
representing a material and intellectual threat to, and thus a 
means of dominating, humanity’. And they surrounded the 
vessel with armour made out of negative material which they 
believed to be completely impenetrable. For reasons of greater 
security, they anchored this craft at the bottom of the Pacific 
Ocean in the vicinity of the Philippines with the intention of 
using their position there to force humanity into military and 
intellectual disarmament. It is one of the most tragic jokes in 
history that the failure of this project and the destruction of 
these people was precisely the thing that led to its successful 
outcome, making them as it were the saviours of humanity in 
reverse. We know that all they succeeded in doing was to cause 
the world powers to unite against them and to push humanity 
not just onto military alert but into a moral panic as well. A 
new peace resulted from this cosmic push. You can, if you like, 
draw parallels between this event and what happened at 
Golgotha, but in the present case I have decided to keep to the 
facts just as they stand. 

I will not go into the problems that stood in the way of the 
construction and equipping of the submarine. They were 
solved and so are not a problem for us anymore. I shall, 
however, touch on the problems that these people proposed to 
solve by means of their bid to dominate the world and that led 
to their downfall, as it was bound to do. They are eternal prob¬ 
lems which probably do not admit of any solution, and, seen in 
this light, the submarine was only one of the innumerable 
experiments to bring about utopia. But the way in which the 
seventeen set the problems out and attempted to solve them 
shows these people to be figures of considerable relevance who 
are still the subject of argument even after so many centuries of 
human experience. Also, what makes this whole complex of 
questions so fascinating is the fact that all the material power in 
the world was for a time concentrated in the submarine, and 


thus from the point of view of power politics nothing stood in 
the way of the proposed solutions being put into practice. 

Dominating the material world proved to be the least of the 
problems to be overcome, and the task of those among the 
seventeen who were physicists and chemists very soon became 
a subsidiary one, as they had fulfilled their function. By means 
of rays that could be controlled very precisely, the submarine 
was able to threaten any human being anywhere in the world 
with instant death, and thus permanently terrorize every single 
individual without causing a general state of terror throughout 
humanity. In this way, the submarine achieved the total 
compliance of any person who was singled out and was only 
required to do any actual killing in the first few days, when it 
was a matter of proving the effectiveness of the rays. From this 
period right up until the general uprising of humanity, the 
domination of the earth by the submarine was completely 
uncontested, and the burden of governing humanity rested on 
the shoulders of those among the seventeen who were national 
economists, ethnologists, biologists, philosophers, theologians 
and artists. The records of proceedings that were probably 
made during sittings of the all-powerful committee were 
unfortunately lost during the sinking of the vessel, so we have 
no information as to the arguments and disagreements that no 
doubt took place in the submarine, and the submarine comes 
across as a collective super-brain, as an absolute ruler with his 
own thoughts and desires. The first proclamation to humanity 
decreed by the submarine after the seizure of power and 
carried by all the radio stations on earth in all languages gives 
some idea of where this brain stood on things. It read as 

In the cause of maintaining the earth as an inhabitable 
place for human beings, we have taken over the legislative 
and executive powers of the whole of humanity. In the 
exercise of this power, we shall be guided by the following 


principles. First, the human being is made in the unique 
image of God. Second, the fact that people come together 
in groups conditioned by biology or economics has to be 
taken into account by the administration, but must not 
overshadow the fundamental uniqueness of the individ¬ 
ual human being. Third, the administration has to build 
up and maintain the economic, legal, biological and 
educational principles by which the intellectual, moral 
and artistic approach of every individual human being to 
their god can be developed. However, it must not itself 
influence the particular approach. 

As is well known, decrees then follow which dissolve all 
armies, consign all warships and fighter planes to destruction, 
destroy all nuclear weapons and provisionally maintain all the 
laws and regulations of the previous system of government. 

As I indicated, this first declaration illustrates the funda¬ 
mental attitude of the submarine towards the problem of 
world domination and already provides a hint as to the tragic 
ending of this reign of terror. It was obvious that all tendencies 
would unite against such an assault on the human spirit. The 
materialists - whether socialist or liberal - were up in arms 
straightaway at the first statement of the proclamation. The 
second point turned all the nationalists, blood-and-soil 
mystics and racial theorists into sworn enemies, not to 
mention all syndicalists, leaders of organizations for Christian 
workers, Moslem liberationists and anti-colonial Blacks. The 
first statement of the third point set all free-thinkers, indepen¬ 
dent philosophers and artists against one another; the second 
statement of the same point turned all the religions against 
one another. This declaration put in place the entire basis for a 
common agreement on the part of humanity to unite under 
the banner of a holy war against the submarine. 

The crew of the submarine now began to put their ideas 
into practice from their position at the bottom of the Pacific. 


On the economic level, they began to abolish the giant corpo¬ 
rations - whether based on private capital or on state capital¬ 
ism - and to replace them by competing small collective 
enterprises. At the same time, they abolished national frontiers 
and founded something called the ‘natural common market’. 
By means of credit regulations (as banking was nationalized - 
i.e. made dependent upon the submarine), they attempted to 
turn economic activity in industry and agriculture over to 
wide-scale automation and thereby reduce working hours to a 
minimum. In this way, the crew of the submarine thought that 
they could turn every human being into a capitalist, a share¬ 
holder in factories where machines laboured. It has taken 
centuries for humanity to recover from the resulting economic 

In the field of biology, the crew of the submarine tried to 
purify humanity by means of eugenics. I will not go into the 
innumerable tragedies brought about by the attempt to orga¬ 
nize love on a rational basis. The automatic mixing of races 
into one human race was in no way promoted by this attempt; 
instead, though this was the intention, it was if anything 

Psychology employed in the service of the submarine - i.e. 
propaganda carried by radio and the press intended to condi¬ 
tion people to happiness - did not meet with the success 
expected of it. This may have to do with the still rather inade¬ 
quate understanding of the psyche at the time, but also with 
the resistance shown by every single citizen to the propaganda 
put out by the submarine. 

The attempts that were equally unsuccessful in the field of 
the arts, sciences and education - particularly in the field 
of education for belief - need only be mentioned in passing; 
they must be left to future investigations more substantial in 

What was to blame for the submarine’s failure to dominate 
the world? It was reality that failed it, the very same reality 


from which the twentieth century had distanced itself and no 
longer believed in. At the start of my observations, I attempted 
to prove that the twentieth-century human being was living in 
a dream world in which a walking-stick was an electromag¬ 
netic field or a cultural production or a manufactured object 
or a sexual symbol or a thing giving evidence of existence, 
living in a world in which it could in fact be anything except a 
walking-stick. All that the seventeen people in the submarine 
were doing was attempting to dream the dream to its conclu¬ 
sion. That is where the dream exploded and humanity woke 
up to reality; to put it rather irreverently, they recognized the 
godhead once more in the walking-stick. This awakening had 
an elemental force the likes of which had not been seen since 
the awakening to reality that took place in the third century 
ad. Everything that smacked of Modernity (i.e. of the 
Enlightenment), abstraction and logic were obliterated from 
the face of the earth, and the submarine was to be the first 
victim of this catharsis. 

In future, let us try and analyze the consequences of this 
revolution of belief. So far, I have limited my account to the 
submarine, and I do not wish to end without emphasizing 
once more the tragic greatness of these human beings who 
ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Seventeen men 
and women condemned themselves to the deep to save 
humanity from certain death. They were, and this goes with¬ 
out saying, still imbued with the prejudices and ideas of their 
age, and it equally goes without saying that they caused an 
immense amount of trouble. We, the children of a later and - 
we think - more enlightened age find it easy to condemn 
them, to make fun of them even. But they were at the same 
time the heralds of a new era. They represent the first attempt 
by humanity since the Middle Ages to combine belief and 
knowledge and art. The fact that this attempt failed because it 
was dominated by knowledge — that is by science - and not by 
belief, as in the case of the Gothic cathedrals, does not make 


these people any less important; in fact it makes them more so. 
With this observation, let us leave the short-lived domination 
of the world by the submarine, that unsuccessful and, for that 
very reason, successful cathedral of knowledge. 



One of the most lasting consequences of Nazism is the way in 
which the swastika has been turned into a kitsch object. This is 
no small achievement given how deeply embedded the sign is 
in the human consciousness. So deeply embedded that the 
Atlantic is shallow in comparison: The swastika looks approxi¬ 
mately the same in the cases of the Celts and of the Aztecs. 

This essay will attempt to reflect upon this sign, but first a note 
on methodology is called for. 

One can look at things in at least two ways: by observing 
and by reading. If one observes things, one sees them as 
phenomena. In the case of the swastika, for example, one sees 
two crossing bars and one sees the ends of those bars bent at 
right angles. If one reads things, one presupposes that they 
mean something and attempts to decipher this meaning. (As 
long as one saw the world as a book, a natura libellum, and as 
long as one attempted to decipher it, a science without presup¬ 
positions was impossible. And since one has observed the 
world, instead of reading it, it has become meaningless.) If one 
now approaches the swastika by reading it, then one sees four 
spokes radiating from a hub that turn in the direction of the 
right angles, and the right angles begin to describe the circum¬ 
ference of a circle. From the point of view of reading, the sign 
expresses itself by saying: I am the wheel of the sun, and I am 

At this point, the motivation for this essay must be admit¬ 
ted: If one observes the post-industrial situation, one is 
impressed by the slow but irreversible disappearance of wheels. 
They no longer tick away inside electronic equipment. Anyone 
wanting to progress no longer goes on wheels but on wings, 
and once biotechnology has overtaken mechanics, then 
machines will no longer have wheels but fingers, legs and 
sexual organs. Perhaps the wheel is just about to become a 


circle and thus one among many equal curves. Before such a 
decadence of the wheel takes over, it seems advisable even at 
this late stage (and despite the trivialisation) to relate the deep 
incomprehensibility of the wheel to the image of the wheel of 
the sun. 

The image points the way from the sign towards the signi¬ 
fied, from the swastika towards the sun. It is a glowing disc, 
and it circles round the earth. In fact, it is only the upper semi¬ 
circle, that between rising and setting, that is visible; the lower 
one remains a dark secret. This eternal turning in a circle, eter¬ 
nally repeated in all its phases, is totally anti-organic. In the 
realm of the living, there are no wheels, and the only things 
that roll are stones and felled tree-trunks. And life is a process: 
It describes a line from birth to death, it is a becoming in order 
to pass away. But the wheel of the sun also contradicts death, 
as well as life: It mysteriously bends its setting back into its 
rising. The wheel of the sun overcomes life and death, and the 
whole world is visible under this wheel, because it is this wheel 
that makes it appear in the first place. And if one looks at it 
this way, it has the following appearance: 

It is a scene in which people and things relate to one 
another - i.e. change their positions in relation to one another. 
The wheel of the sun, the circle of time, moves each and every 
thing back into its allotted position. Every movement is a 
crime committed by people and things against one another 
and against the eternal order of the circle, and time goes round 
in a circle in order to atone for these crimes and return people 
and things to the position allotted to them. Hence there is no 
essential difference between people and things; both are 
animated by the desire to sow disorder, and both are judged by 
time and with time for their wrong-doing. Everything in the 
world is animated, since it moves, and it must have a motiva¬ 
tion in order to move. And time is both judge and executioner; 
it goes in a circle round the world, puts everything right and 
makes everything part of a wheel. In this atmosphere of crime 


and punishment and eternal recurrence - in other words, 
under the sign of the wheel of the sun - human beings have 
lived out most of the period of grace granted to their existence 
on earth. 

There have always been human beings who have attempted 
to rebel against the circling wheel of fate. All they have 
achieved has been to provoke fate even more. Precisely because 
Oedipus did not want to sleep with his mother, for that very 
reason he did so and had to tear out his eyes. This the Greeks 
called ‘heroism’. The Pre-Socratics wanted to overtake the 
wheel on the outside - via the transcendent. They thought 
that, in order to be able to turn, the wheel must have a motiva¬ 
tion, a mover. Without that which Aristotle worked out in his 
day in the shape of an Unmoved Mover behind time, this - in 
itself unmotivated - motivation, one cannot imagine the 
Western concept of God. 

Long before the Pre-Socratics, however, there is evidence in 
Mesopotamia of a kind of heroism of quite a different type. 
Try and put yourself in the shoes of a Sumerian priest. There 
he was sitting on his tell attempting to decipher the circling 
world of wheels. He saw birth, death and rebirth; he saw crime 
and punishment; he saw night and day, summer and winter, 
war and peace, fat years and lean years; and he saw all these 
phases meshing with one another in a cyclical fashion. From 
these cycles and epicycles, the priest could read off the future, 
by means astrology for example, not to prevent them happen¬ 
ing but to prophesy their happening. And suddenly, he had the 
incredible idea of building a wheel that would turn in the 
opposite direction to the wheel of fate. A wheel that, if placed 
in the Euphrates, would turn the waters round so that they 
would not flow into the sea but into channels. This is, seen 
from our point of view, a technological idea. But at that time 
and in that place, it was an incomprehensible breakthrough. 
The invention of the wheel broke through the magic circle of 
prehistory; it broke the power of fate. It broke its way into a 


new form of time: history. If anything does, the invention of 
the water-wheel deserves to be called a ‘catastrophe’. 

Before getting carried away with the philosophy of it, we 
should not be prevented from following up the later develop¬ 
ment of the wheel. In other words, looking at that cart pulled 
by a donkey taking corn to the mill. This is a totally different 
scene from that of the heroic inventive priest. It comes in the 
middle of history and is closer to the Industrial Revolution 
than to Myth. For the concept of the vehicle wheel - i.e. the 
cartwheel - is entirely due to historical consciousness and 
could only arise where history is a lived experience. For 

Imagine taking the water-wheel out of its usual situation 
and giving it impetus. It would have to roll across an infinitely 
extended space for an infinitely long period of time, and this is 
after all precisely what we call ‘history’: an infinitely long, infi¬ 
nitely extended rolling motion. It turns out, however, that this 
is not the case; a motor is needed, the donkey that has to give 
the wheel continually renewed impetus to keep it rolling. How 
can we explain the fact that a vehicle wheel must be a ‘motor¬ 
cycle’ and cannot be an ‘automobile’, cannot be a perpetuum 
mobile, cannot be something eternally motivated? The idea of 
the vehicle wheel on its own cannot explain this. The wheel is a 
circle, so it is always in contact with its orbit by means of a 
single point. As a point is without dimension, is Nothing, the 
wheel is never in contact with the reality it is rolling over and 
therefore should in no way be influenced by it. Nevertheless, it 
does in fact rub up against the treacherous repulsion of the 
world, and donkeys have to pull it in order to keep it rolling. 

Consider how far away we have come, in discussing the 
problem of the vehicle wheel, from the mythical world of the 
wheel of the sun. And the basic difference between the world 
of Myth and ours is this: In the world of Myth, there can be no 
unmotivated movement. If something moves in it, this is 
because it has a motivation - i.e. because it is animated by a 


motivation. In our world, on the other hand, movement calls 
for further explanation. Our world is inert, or - to put it more 
elegantly - the law of inertia explains all movement and all 
rest. Of course, there are, also in our world, movements that 
appear to be motivated. Our own, for example. Such abnormal 
movements are characteristic of living beings. The eighteenth 
century cherished a hope of explaining away the motivations 
of living beings as legends and of explaining living beings in 
terms of complex machines. This hope has never materialized, 
and yet the world of Myth is an animated world - living beings 
are all within it and are wheeled along by fate - while ours is 
an inert, inanimate world, even if living beings occur within it, 
and this inert world rolls on and on without motivation. 

So how come vehicle wheels are always catching? Because a 
point is only Nothing in theory and because a wheel is only a 
circle in theory. In practice, a point is always elongated, and a 
circle is always slightly irregular. According to the law of iner¬ 
tia, wheels should in theory roll forever to infinity, but in prac¬ 
tice they come up against friction, which puts a brake on them. 
However, this does not mean that we should abandon theory 
when building vehicle wheels. On the contrary, it means that 
we must, at the same time, build a theory of friction into the 
theory of inertia. With the cart pulled by the donkey, we are 
caught right in the middle of a contradiction between theory 
and observation, between theory and experiment - i.e. 
between thinking scientifically and thinking technologically. 

The world has become inert and inanimate and at the same 
time treacherous and repulsive since, by the invention first of 
the water-wheel and then of the vehicle wheel, we have broken 
through the fateful wheel of the eternal recurrence of the 
same. But we can overcome the repulsive treachery of the 
inanimate world by means of the dialectic between theory and 
experiment and force it to act as a basis for a limitlessly rolling 
progress. The wheel of progress cannot move endlessly 
forward automatically because it is forced over and over again 


to overcome the blind, unmotivated resistances of an inani¬ 
mate world - e.g. the earth’s attraction and the unevennesses 
of the surface. The wheel of progress needs a motor, and we 
ourselves are this motor, our own will. Hence the slogan of the 
triumphant Industrial Revolution: ‘If your strong arm it 
should will, all the wheels must stand still’ or: ‘We are the 
drivers of all the wheels, the living God of a dead universe.’ 

Unfortunately, not for long. It has recently turned out to be 
the case that the repulsive frictions that obstruct the wheel of 
progress can in fact be overcome and that progress then starts 
to roll automatically. It becomes an automobile. Then any 
further driving of the wheel on the part of humanity becomes 
superfluous. Progress begins to go into a skid like that caused 
when there is black ice. And the danger arises that, in the face 
of such progress without friction, humanity is run over 
precisely when it attempts to apply the brake. A situation 
which in a roundabout way reminds one of the eyes of 
Oedipus rebelling against the fateful wheel and his having to 
tear them out of his own head. This perhaps explains the 
attempt nowadays to turn off the wheels and jump across from 
the world of vehicle wheels into another world that is still to be 
experienced. This essay has been an attempt to look backwards 
one more time before jumping out of the automobile rolling 
along without friction, so as to catch sight one more time of 
the radiant secret behind the skidding wheels, that radiant 
secret by which this whole story was originally set in motion. 


Biographical Note 

1920 Vilem Flusser is born in Prague on 12 May. He grows up 
in a family of Jewish intellectuals; his father, Gustav Flusser, is 
a Professor of Mathematics at Charles University. 

1931 Attends the Smichovo Gymnasium in Prague. 

1939 Begins studying philosophy at Charles University in 

1940 Escapes to London with Edith Barth. 

End of 1940 Both emigrate to Brazil. 

1941 Marries Edith Barth in Rio de Janeiro. 

1950-61 Works in industry. Directs a transformer factory in 
Sao Paulo. At the same time, continues studies in philosophy - 
‘i.e. one did business in the daytime and philosophy at night’. 

1957 First publications on questions of linguistic philosophy 
in Suplemento Literario do Estado de Sao Paulo. 

1959 Appointed Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at 
University of Sao Paulo. 

from i960 Permanent member of staff of Suplemento Literario 
do Estado de Sao Paulo. Publishes first contributions to Revista 
Brasileira de Filosofia, journal of Brazilian Philosophical 
Institute, Sao Paulo. 

from 1961 Regular publications in a number of Brazilian jour¬ 
nals, such as Cultura Brasileira. Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the 
country’s biggest daily newspapers, sets up a column, ‘Posta 

1962 Member of Brazilian Philosophical Institute, 

Sao Paulo. 


1963 Appointed to Chair of the Philosophy of 
Communication at University of Communication and the 
Human Sciences (FAAP) in Sao Paulo. Member of Committee 
of Fundagao Bienal das Artes. First book is published: Lingua e 
Realidade (Sao Paulo: Herder). 

1964 Assistant editor of Revista Brasileira de Filosofia. 

1965 Lectures on linguistic philosophy at Faculty of 
Humanities of Technological Institute of Aeronautics, Sao 
Paulo. Publishes A Histdria do Diabo (Sao Paulo: Martins). 

from 1966 Regular contributor to Frankfurter Allgemeine 

1966 Publishes Filosofia da Lingages (Campos de Jordao: ITA) 
and Da Religiosidade (Sao Paulo: Commissao Estadual de 

1966-67 Emissary of Brazilian Foreign Ministry for cultural 
co-operation with North America and Europe. 

from 1967 Guest-lectures at North American and European 
universities. Participates in international congresses. Publishes 
in European and North American journals, including 
Artitudes (Paris), Communication et langages (Paris), Main 
Currents (New York) and Merkur (Munich). 

1972 Due to conflict with the military government, the 
Flussers move to Europe, settling in Merano. Flusser works on 
a philosophical autobiography, Zeugenschaft aus der 
Bodenlosigkeit (Testimony of Rootlessness), part of which is 
published in 1992 by Bollmann (Diisseldorf and Bensheim) 
under the title Bodenlos (Rootless). Publishes La Force du 
quotidien (Paris: Mame). 

1973 Moves to Robion in the south of France. Works on a 
phenomenology of human gestures. 


1974 Publishes Le Monde codifie (Paris: Institut de 

1977 Publishes L’Art sociologique et la video a travers la 
demarche de Fred Forest (Paris: Collection 10/18). 

1979 Publishes Naturakmente (Sao Paulo: Duas Cidades). 

1981 Publishes Pos-histdria (Sao Paulo: Duas Cidades). First 
book-length publication in German, Fur eine Philosophic der 
Fotografie (Gottingen: European Photography) (since trans¬ 
lated into eight languages). 

1985 Publishes Ins Universum der technischen Bilder 
(Gottingen: European Photography) and Vampyroteuthis 
infernalis (together with Louis Bee) (Gottingen: Immatrix 
Publications/European Photography). Die Schrift: Hat 
Schreiben Zukunft? is published simultaneously in book 
form and on disk by Immatrix Publications/European 

from 1985 Lectures frequently in Western Europe, particularly 
in Federal Republic of Germany. Publishes articles, essays and 
commentaries in magazines and newspapers, including 
Artforum (New York), Leonardo (Berkeley), Spuren 
(Hamburg), kultuRRevolution (Essen), Design Report 
(Frankfurt am Main), Kunstforum International 
(Ruppichteroth), Arch+ (Aachen). 

1986 Publishes Krise derLinearitdt (Berne: Benteli). 

1989 Publishes Angenommen: Eine Szenenfolge (Gottingen: 
Immatrix Publications/European Photography). 

1990 Publishes Nachgeschichten (Diisseldorf and Bensheim: 

1991 Publishes Gesten: Versuch einer Phdnomenologie 
(Diisseldorf and Bensheim: Bollmann). 


Vilem Flusser dies on 27 November in a road accident near 
Prague, shortly after visiting the city of his birth for the first 
time in more than 50 years.